How coronavirus and finances affect elite British sportswomen

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The mean annual gross pay in the United Kingdom in 2019 was £30,629

No job = no sport. A simple sum that could have far-reaching consequences at the top of women’s sport.

According to a BBC survey of elite British sportswomen, 86% earn less than £30,000 from their sport – with 60% earning less than £10,000, meaning many are holding down ‘normal’ jobs to fund their training and competition.

And as the coronavirus pandemic brings rising unemployment among other issues, one in five believe they may have to give up their sport because of the global health crisis.

Add in reduced training, sponsorship cuts, cancelled competitions and rising travel costs, it is not hard to see why 82% of the 537 athletes said they have concerns about the impact of coronavirus on women’s sport.

Below are some personal stories from athletes who face heart-breaking dilemmas and concerns.

‘I have been made redundant’

Darts player Kirsty Chubb lost her job as a senior business travel consultant and is worried she may have to give up her sport

“Unfortunately my job role has been made redundant because of the impact of Covid-19, which has had a horrific effect within the aviation and travel industry. This does mean I may have to look for work outside the industry that I have worked in for 16 years.

“The past few months have been tough, very much on a mental health level, and in terms of learning to live with life in uncertainty. I am taking each day as it comes regarding getting a new job, I hope, and will then do my best to try to adapt darts around that.

“It is a frightening and daunting prospect to be starting afresh out of my comfort zone and will have a financial impact. Depending on which new career I embark on, this is likely to affect my ability to play the game, especially if the new role consists of shift and weekend work.

“However much I love the sport, the main priority is being able to support myself financially and although it’s an extremely stressful time, in the back of my mind we do have to consider that there are millions globally who have been more seriously affected by this pandemic.”

‘Will I be able to catch up? Should I leave now?’

Olivia Blatch is an English and British champion weightlifter, who is hoping to represent England at the 2022 Commonwealth Games

“This year was always going to be a little bit of a write-off for me because of the Olympics [which I haven’t been selected for] – the focus is on the girls going to the Olympics. Obviously because of coronavirus, that shift in focus has gone on for another year [as the Games have been postponed], so that kind of leaves me thinking: ‘OK, when does the focus move on to the squad for the Commonwealth Games?’

“Having all that time out of the gym, you start to think ‘my knees hurt a bit’ ‘my back hurts a bit’ – can I actually see myself getting back to that level that I was at before all this happened? It’s quite daunting thinking I’ve got to go back into the gym – and can I catch up?

“And I think social media plays into that a lot – I’m watching the girls that have got home gyms carrying on with their training, getting stronger and doing really well. I don’t have a home gym and so not being able to go to the gym creates a lot of anxiety. I start to think: ‘Is it better to leave now while I was on a high or do I try to get back?’

“Of course the answer is I’m going to try to get back. I’m competitive, I’m an athlete.

“I am lucky that I have a stable job and it pays the bills. At the beginning, it was a real anxiety that I was going to lose my job or be furloughed or made redundant.

“If I do get made redundant, then it will be all about the job search; weightlifting will not be the top priority. But at the moment I’m lucky because I am still working from home.”

‘Extra cost is going to drive girls out of the game’

Gemma Dryburgh is a Scottish golfer who plays on the LPGA tour and Ladies European Tour. The LPGA tour resumed last month after a near five-month break because of coronavirus

“It’s going to be a lot more costly this year. Usually on the LPGA, I stay with local families, which saves on accommodation costs but they are recommending us not to do that and to stay in a hotel by ourselves. Usually we’ll do that or share with other players in an Airbnb or hotel room but we won’t be able to do that this year. We’re not allowed to share cars, so that’s going to be more costly too.

“Thankfully on the LPGA, they are going to be able to give a stipend from our Arkansas event [the NW Arkansas Championship from 27-30 August] onwards to anyone who misses the cut, so that’s going to be helpful for a lot of girls to cover costs, that’s positive at least.

“It’s definitely an extra incentive [to win more money]. You want to do as well as you can, make this year a positive one even though it’s been hard for everyone.

“The extra cost and the fact that there is not going to be any qualifying for next year… it’s going to drive a lot of girls out of the game, unfortunately, especially on the lower tours. So basically, if you want to get on the LPGA or LET, you have to wait another year.

“That could change a lot of girls’ lives and a lot of their career paths. Some girls might have sponsorship, thinking ‘if I get on tour next year then that will be it’ but they will have to wait another year for that. It’s another year of just amateur golf – a lot of girls might not be able to afford to do that, so I hope we don’t lose that talent coming through.”

Dryburgh welcomed the return of the LPGA Tour at the end of July

‘Financial pressure may lead to nasty injuries’

One elite sportswoman, who represents her country and was speaking anonymously, is concerned about the impact on players’ bodies.

“I don’t earn enough to not work as it is, even being at elite level in the sport.

“We need to get back to playing and earning an income. Already there are concerns about injury – I mean, four weeks to prepare to play after so long off is a massive injury risk. There is pressure on your career, you need the financial income so you need to play, but also how is that going to impact on your body if you’ve not been able to practise properly?

“We’ve managed to stay fit but it’s a lot of pressure on your body and physicality. I worry about the long-term impacts of that on careers. I think we may see a lot of nasty injuries when we first get back.

“There’s not as much available funding to women to support us. So already I have to work part-time to be able to fund my travel.

“And with some people, men’s sport is more desirable – there is more interest and so that’s where they want to put their funding.”

‘Why are men’s sports back before women’s?’

At the height of lockdown discussions around the return to sport centred on men’s – the Premier League, Formula 1, Premiership rugby – while the Women’s Super League and Premier 15s seasons were cancelled.

Former England and Arsenal footballer Alex Scott said in June that women’s sport had taken a “back seat” because of the pandemic.

Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston told BBC Sport: “It is a priority of mine to help women’s sports recover from the coronavirus pandemic, sustain its momentum and push for greater participation, employment, commercial opportunities and positive visibility across all forms of media.”

Many of the anonymous survey answers expressed similar concerns to Scott:

  • “Men’s sports are getting priority because they will bring in more coverage and money. Women’s sports get further pushed to the side on TV and in media coverage, as well as losing income from competitions.”
  • “The reason we haven’t finished our league is mainly down to money. We aren’t treated or looked after the same as the men. Men’s clubs are back in training and being tested, we aren’t.”
  • “Why does men’s elite-level football get to start up again and we can’t?”
  • “Women’s sport was making such progress but I’m worried what financial impact the coronavirus might have on governing bodies, sponsors and media wanting to continue to invest – because of the smaller return on their money compared to men’s sport.”
  • “Our set-up could collapse and we might not be given full-time contracts, which wouldn’t allow us a career in either sport or the outside world.”
  • “The underlying feeling in women’s football is that in a financial crisis, women’s sport is the first to go.”

The impact of coronavirus on women’s sport is one of many issues raised by the BBC Elite British Sportswomen’s Survey. BBC Sport will be shining a spotlight on the others with coverage throughout the week on the BBC Sport website, BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC TV. More information can be found here.

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