Huge sums of money in the balance over reopening sport - Sport NI chief

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Antoinette McKeown, Sport NI.

By Rebecca Black, PA.

Huge sums of money are in the balance when it comes to restarting our most popular sports, the Sport NI chief has said.

Antoinette McKeown said her organisation is working "on a means by which to quantify" the sums involved, adding it is "particularly problematic" with no date for the return of rugby, football and gaelic games.

"For Ulster Rugby to return, for the Northern Ireland football league to return, for our GAA county clubs to return represents a huge amount of money," she told a Stormont oversight committee.

"In the absence of a date for return what we do know is that, for example, the Ulster GAA championship not going ahead this season will cost the Ulster GAA approximately £22 million.

"We also know that the IFA is a salaried organisation. It brings in a considerable amount of money to the Northern Ireland economy on an annual basis but it also has a wage bill of £3 million and that is particularly problematic when you don't have any gate receipts as a result of games not happening."

Giving evidence to the Stormont Communities Committee, Ms McKeown said it was "incredibly difficult to put a price on", in response when asked what funding is required.

"Sport NI is working to quantify that at the minute but this is right across 84 governing body sports where they have had to cancel competitions and the income from those events and loss of third party investment through sponsorship and also the loss of the volunteer workforce," she said.

"One club alone has identified their volunteer workforce as worth £1 million a year."

Ms McKeown also revealed that she is hopeful of a £750,000 boost to an exhausted funding pot for sports clubs.

The Hardship Fund for Sport was launched by the Department for Communities to support sports clubs and organisations with £2,000 grants amid the coronavirus pandemic.

However, high demand saw the fund close to new applications within days.

Ms McKeown said Sport NI recognises the frustration and need among sports clubs, while paying tribute to them for being active in the community throughout the pandemic and helping the most vulnerable.

"We did open the fund with half a million, anticipating that more money may have become available and, unfortunately, 48 hours after we opened we got confirmation from the Department for Communities at that time there was no additional funding made available," she told the committee.

"At a time when we knew we had no money we felt it was unfair and potentially disingenuous so, having discussed it with the department and the minister, we took the very difficult decision of actually suspending any new applications to the fund.

"However we have identified additional funding of up to £750,000. We are waiting for the business case to go through at the minute but it will deal with all applications in the system."

DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley said he had concerns about the fund, stating that GAA clubs had accounted for 30% of applications but had received 36% of the funding.

He queried whether the programme had been subject to an equality impact assessment.

Ms McKeown insisted there was equality of opportunity regarding those applying to the scheme.

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