In our previous article about Game On, a programme run by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust which champions and strengthens coalfield communities through sport, Emily Salley examined the challenges people in former coal-mining regions faced pre-Coronavirus and how Game On were helping during the crisis. But what issues will these ex-mining areas face after lockdown is over and what challenges will Game On come up against when making a return to grassroots sport?
Ryan Jones, the Development Manager of Game On Wales, has noted that the inequality gap in sports participation has increased during the Coronavirus crisis.
In fact, a survey published by Sport Wales found that 39% of adults from higher socio-economic backgrounds say they have been doing more physical activity during lockdown while people from lower socio-economic backgrounds say they are doing less than they would have done before lockdown with only 29% reporting they are doing more.
This gap is particularly evident among children. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are 5% more likely to be doing no exercise than those from higher socio-economic communities.
“If we don’t get something going, that’s going to expand,” said Ryan. “And there’ll be huge issues further down the line to the physical and mental health, particularly of those ex-mining communities.
“Certain town centres which tend to be ex-mining communities across the UK were the most fragile before the virus. So post the virus, they’re going to be even more fragile.
“We try to make as many positive interventions as we can to try and bridge this gap, and bridge the divide. Because most of the mines closed 30 or 40 years ago, the legacy of that in terms of mass unemployment and some of the health issues that were around, are still there – especially for the older generations who possibly are ex-miners.
“This is why we do things like walking football and why walking sports are so important. Just to try and get people more active, more often.”
Grassroots sports clubs and youth clubs in ex-mining areas will be hit hard due to their reliance on getting numbers through the door, as Ryan explains.
“We work a lot with youth centres, for example, who do a tremendous job. But of course the whole business model is that it is open three nights a week and kids come in and pay a pound or two pounds just to attend that evening and that’s all stopped.
“So when they restart, when can they start and what alternatives are there? Will this mean they just won’t have the participation and the uptake that they did have before pandemic?
“So that’s a real worry because they’re all run by volunteers. They rent facilities. It’s a very low turnover, so all it needs is 10 to 20 fewer kids coming through the door and they could be in real trouble.”
However Ryan is hopeful that community and grassroots sport can make a comeback amidst these uncertain times in ex-mining communities.
“We see a lot of discussions around the Premier League, and the elite end of sport, and that’s fine but you can imagine the logistics of it and the cost of putting on a large-scale event with hundreds of people behind the scenes with TV and everything else. It’s a huge logistical challenge.
“Whereas small groups of six people in a park somewhere, actually, that might be easier to get going than the other way around.
“It seems to be that it’s all ‘top down’ rather than ‘bottom up’ in terms of the way back. I think there is a role for us and others to try and lobby decision-makers to say ‘Don’t forget about us. We shouldn’t be last on the list to return, we should be one of the first’.”
It won’t be an easy road for the Game On programme to get back to normality and there will be a number of challenges along the way.
Coronavirus has meant that some facility providers have decided not to re-open, having a knock-on effect for Game On which relies heavily on the facilities to deliver its weekly sessions.
For instance, Game On Wales uses facilities at the University of South Wales which has declared it will be delivering a large proportion of its learning virtually, which creates problems for Ryan and his Game On team.
“We have a lot of university students who come and volunteer for us. If they are not going to return in the numbers they once did and they’re not physically going to be around, where are we going to get these volunteers from? I think that’s a major issue for providers going forward.”
Not only do Game On have to worry about finding spaces to host their activities but attracting the same numbers to attend each week will become a challenge.
“There’s going to be a general reluctance,” Ryan explains. “With walking football…. some of these people are 60 or 70 years old, and they’ve already had underlying health conditions.
“There’s going be some real general reluctance, particularly in that activity, to get back involved.”
Communities in ex-mining regions will be burdened with extra social and financial hardships in the aftermath of the pandemic, and for those in south Wales, from the damage done by Storm Dennis. Nonetheless, the Game On team are determined to bounce back and provide opportunities through sport.
Ryan points out one positive which has shone through lockdown in coalfield towns and villages: a greater sense of community spirit.
“It’s been great to see the community effort that has developed out of all this. It’s probably always been there but it’s taken something like this crisis to pull people back together. The community spirit is in abundance.
“It’s all about how we make the most of that now going forward, how can we sustain this grassroots, community-led activity.”
Find out more about the Coalfields Regeneration Trust.