In Italy, grassroots sport clubs are struggling and some of them were forced to make radical choices such as a total closure of the club.
While some clubs remained closed, others reinvented their offers and moved their sport activities online. In that way, their members were allowed to continue the training, and the clubs stayed connected to its community.
“This is a crucial moment in which sport clubs can take a step towards innovation,” says Linda Rombolà, the project manager at the Department of International Relations, International Cooperation and Project Designing of OPES Italia.
In the following interview, Linda explained to us the issues sport clubs in Italy are currently facing, highlighted the role innovation will play in this crisis and reflected on the importance sport has in people’s lives; before, during and after the pandemic.
She also emphasized that the sport sector will have the responsibility to contribute to rebuilding communities and individuals, supporting their physical and psychological well-being, heavily affected by the pandemic. With its new services, OPES is already reaching beyond sport and offers support to people affected by COVID-19. Read more in the interview below.
How is Covid-19 affecting sport clubs and the grassroots sport sector in Italy?
The pandemic has been affecting the sport sector since its beginnings. The total lockdown in March forced sport clubs to close their doors for what first seemed to be a temporary period. Now, after 10 months, we can look back and see the extent of the damage that COVID-19 has done, and is still doing to the sport sector. It is a situation in which uncertainty has been and still is a constant.
In Italy, what we know currently is that gyms and swimming pools will remain closed at least until March, contact sports are not allowed and the championships of the non-professional sports have been suspended. Probably they will not be organised this year.
Also, Italy is divided into coloured zones (yellow, orange and red) and each region has specific regulations which determine the possibility of whether the sports activities are allowed or not. Each region is in a zone and therefore follows specific rules but its position can change. Due to all these constant changes, organizing activities makes it difficult for the clubs.
In the majority of cases, such as the one mentioned above, clubs are not allowed to open at all. A partial opening was allowed in summer, but clubs who opened their doors had to make some adjustments. For example, they needed to invest extra money in order to follow the regulations, such as separated entrance and exit, or to organize the cleaning and disinfection of the facility.
Another issue sport clubs faced was the reduction in members due to the regulation of reorganizing the indoor space and reducing the capacity of the facility in order to provide the athletes with enough safety/physical distance. For the same reason (maintaining distance), many clubs had to divide the team into smaller training groups (for example of 5 people). This meant that to train a group of 15 people, for which the training usually lasts for one hour, took, under the new rules, 3 hours (three different groups).
Many clubs decided that it was not convenient to open under these conditions and remained closed, also during the partial opening in summer. Let’s think about the clubs which do not own a facility and need to rent it (or have a credit). Most of them did not want to take a risk (of financial ruin).
Renting a venue/facility leads to another issue: most facilities are not available for the amount of time sport clubs would need them under the new regulations (think about a group split into three smaller groups, this triples the time necessary to train). All clubs that decided to open for the summer and the ones which decided to remain closed, had to spend money in one way or another, often without an income.
This situation was worsened by the general closing which started on the 25th of October 2020.
Grassroots clubs are suffering a lot and some of them are forced to take radical solutions such as a total closure.
What is the response and support from the government; are sport clubs and grassroots sport getting support?
With the outbreak of the pandemic in March, the government decided to stop the sport activities.
The only activities allowed (at the beginning) were the ones done individually, and/or close to the house.
Until the end of March, only professional athletes were allowed to train. Later, also professional athletes had to stop their training until May. A partial reopening took place at the end of May when the sport activities re-started but only when following specific regulations (i.e. safety distance and disinfection). After a partial reopening (in summer), the increasing number of covid cases led the government to establish new regulations and apart from a few exceptions, the recreational sport activities and facilities were closed again. The idea was to reopen in January. But the latest news is that activities will not restart before March.
Throughout the pandemic, the Italian government has announced numerous recovery measures in different sectors, including sport.
Some forms of support were financial aids allocated to sport clubs/organisations. The government also introduced cheaper loans and tax relief for sport clubs and associations. Other measures included receiving a reimbursement or vouchers for the customers’ card bought before the COVID-19 (gyms, summer camps, etc).
In September, a proposal of a recovery plan for sport was mentioned by the ministry. The idea was to allocate 1.5 billion euros to the sport sector. But this proposal has not been confirmed.
So, we can say that the government did offer some forms of support that have helped clubs in some aspects but that unfortunately, as already mentioned in the previous answer, is not sufficient to tackle all the issues that have emerged.
Covid-19 and community sport; do you think this is a crisis or an opportunity?
Well, it is hard to answer this question. For sure we are living in a situation which feels like a crisis but as history can teach us – we can come out stronger. This sentence can seem banal but if we change the perspective a bit, we can see how true it can be.
The situation we are living in is exposing, or highlighting, the issues which have been there before COVID-19, and which have now been worsened by the pandemic. COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented crisis and we are experiencing its devastating effects.
But even before the pandemic, sport clubs at the grassroots level were already facing some major problems. The lack of resources, attracting and maintaining volunteers, and providing inclusive sport opportunities are just some of them. Problems are not new but since the onset of COVID-19, they are more visible, and bigger. But more exposure might provide us with a possibility to transform the crisis into opportunity.
Changes are necessary. But to initiate a change, which can be effective, it is important to be aware of the starting point. For example, knowing internal and external weaknesses and strengths is a crucial element, and a first and fundamental step to make a necessary change toward a more sustainable system. Sport clubs, especially the smaller ones, do not have time or the possibility to make an analysis which could help them shape a strategy and use their resources in a more effective way.
Despite that, we are seeing some members of the sport community reinventing their activities (and changing their role within this community). Many clubs took their activities online to allow their members to continue with training, and also to maintain contact with them.
The sport community is reconsidering its role and going beyond sport. With OPES, for example, we are implementing the programme “programma emergenza COVID” which has four lines of interventions. These go beyond sport activities, and are implemented in partnership with other organizations from other sectors. We are organizing services to support people affected by COVID-19, offering information on how to access the funds for sport, and running special communication campaigns. We are also supporting physical education teachers. These kinds of initiatives will not substitute traditional sport activities, but they can help sport clubs recover fast after the pandemic.
Without the crisis (maybe) these initiatives would never be organised. And now, they can become an integral part of the clubs’ offer, and increase the value sport clubs have in the community.
This situation is making everyone to reflect on the crucial role that sport plays in our own lives. It is already well known that sport has numerous benefits: physical, psychological and social. Sport helps people to feel better.
People understand the importance of something only when they are deprived of that. This is happening now with the sport.
We could say this is a crucial moment in which sport clubs can make a step towards innovation. I am talking about an innovation which starts with analysis, collecting good practices and understanding the needs of a community (which is currently being deprived of sport activities).
I think the work we are doing with the project CHAMP is very important. During the pandemic, clubs involved in our CHAMP research, stated they are really interested in the final product (the online course). For them, an online course could represent an important tool to enhance and improve the work they are doing.
This crisis is the right moment to invest energy and resources into innovation.
What do you think is the main challenge that grassroots and community sport sector is facing today?
With OPES, we are in constant contact with sport clubs. And through international projects, we have closely researched this topic.
One of the main challenges we identify is the lack of economic resources combined with the uncertainty for the future.
Stopping the sport activities meant a huge loss, which, regardless of governmental support, have affected clubs and their human resources. In addition, the uncertainty about when to start again and which regulations to follow – this makes it very difficult to create a plan and to act accordingly. Most likely, regulations will not be affordable and/or sustainable for many clubs.
This means that for many small clubs reopening will be impossible, meaning that they are facing the issue of closure. This is a major loss, not only for the single club and for the people working in it but also for the community. If we think about suburban areas for example, in many cases, the opportunity to play sport is granted by a single club staying in the area.
People might not have the possibility to move and to play in a different clubs for many reasons (from lack of transport to lack of money and time). The closure of this club would mean the end of sport opportunities for people living there with major consequences for individuals and for the area. This is just an example of what could happen. It is a reality that needs to be taken into account, something that is not far away and it is already happening in the sport sector.
Maybe the answer to this question can be linked to the previous one. The main challenge for the sport community is to be ready to accept the challenge that a crisis can be transformed into an opportunity. To do that, “waiting and seeing” seems not to be an option. And after the crisis the sport sector will also have the responsibility to contribute to rebuilding a community of individuals, supporting their physical and psychological well-being, heavily affected by the pandemic.
Probably the true challenge is to start immediately a changing process, based on the analysis, on the exchange, on the cooperation. A system which helps the sport sector not only to survive this situation but above all to be ready to take responsibility for rebuilding the needs after the pandemic in, through and beyond sport.
OPES is one of the partners in the Erasmus+ funded project CHAMP which tackles the innovation and modernization of the traditional sport movement. The final product of the project will be a free, online course “How to manage a modern sport club”.
OPES is an Italian Organization born in 1980 to promote the practice of sport in Italy. Today, it is considered an important ramification and presence around the country and is active in the promotion of various initiatives. OPES represents a dynamic reality in the field of Social and Sportive Promotion, being an entity that promotes and organizes, in collaboration with the Affiliate Sports Associations, numerous no-profit athletic and recreational initiatives at the local, provincial, national and international level. OPES believes in sport as a means of transmitting values and as a life gym that teaches to socialize and grow, to engage and confront with own limits. OPES proposes sport as a response to young people who hardly find the right models or points of reference to grow in an increasingly frenetic society.
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