Athletes to feel pinch as Lottery ticket sales slump

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Streamlining; downsizing; prioritising; delivering: these words are being used energetically in sporting administrations circles at the moment, and the reason is not words, but figures.

Streamlining. Downsizing. Prioritising. Delivering. These words are being used energetically in sporting administrations circles at the moment, and the reason is not words, but figures.

It emerged last week that in the period to September, Lottery tickets sales slumped to their lowest point in the scheme's eight-year history, dropping by 5.2 per cent from the same time last year and reducing money available to good causes by 8.4 per cent, from £668m to £612m. The figures confirmed a continuing trend. Lottery ticket sales, which peaked at £5.5bn in 1997-98, had fallen by 2001-02 to £4.8bn.

Enough numbers. As the Lottery operators, Camelot, seek to avoid becoming Notalot – will they dye Billy Connolly's goatee a different colour now? – the first tremors of privation are being felt throughout the good causes dependent upon Lottery largesse. Not least sport.

Steve Cram, the former world mile and 1500 metre record holder turned BBC commentator, is well placed to feel those tremors having been for the last five years a member of the Lottery panel which administers funding on behalf of Sport England and UK Sport.

"It had been predicted that there was going to be a drop in sales, but it was much steeper than we thought," said Cram, who has seen funding for sport drop dramatically since he joined the panel. In 1997-98, Sport England paid out £268m Lottery money to sport; in 2002-2003 that figure will be £170m.

"The problem for us is that we have made a lot of forward commitments both to big capital projects that may not be drawing the money down for another two to three years, and to sports running four-year Olympic programmes through our World-Class scheme.

"That's fine as long as you've got the money, but imagine what it is like if you have a house and a mortgage to keep up and someone halves your salary. The World Class programme has a lot of people employed on contracts and dependent athletes, and for every reason we don't want to have to start making 25 per cent cuts with 18 months to go until the Athens Olympics.

"We will be trying to minimise the impact on the World Class budget. But a couple of weeks ago we spoke to six or seven major sports about how we would go about saving money."

Even in cycling, which provided the Lottery funders with their most dramatic success story at the Sydney Olympics, there are fears that a spoke may soon be put into their financial wheels once they have negotiated the 2004 Games.

"We are fairly confident our élite funding is in place until Athens," said the British Cycling Federation's programmes director David Brailsford. "But there is a lot of talk about cuts to the elements of our scheme in the two tiers below the élite level which are financed by Sport England. We get £2m per annum for these programmes, and as yet we have not been notified about what is going to happen."

Cram sees two possible courses of action. The first involves making hard decisions about which sports have a realistic opportunity to yield success at world and Olympic level. "Even in Australia they don't fund every sport," he said. "We need to target where we can win medals in major championships. I really don't think we can continue to fund 40 sports. My view is that it's better to have 15 well-funded programmes that bear results rather than 25-30 which have a little funding to little effect.

"We might even target certain areas within a sport. For example, in athletics, we may need to concentrate on certain events, such as the sprints, where we want to push for medals."

As for the smaller bids coming in from all across the country for new sports halls, swimming pools and pitches, Cram foresees a depressing picture in the short-to-medium term.

"Unfortunately, there are a lot of applications – well researched applications that would previously have been supportable – which we are not going to be able to say yes to," he said. "It's a hard pill to swallow, and there's not a lot of room for manoeuvre. I think there will almost have to be a freeze on future projects for the time being."

Sport England itself is currently feeling the cold as it adapts to the stringent new climate under the new stewardship of acting chief executive Roger Draper and last week's belated replacement for Trevor Brooking as chairman, Patrick Carter.

The Sport England tree is undergoing a rigorous shaking, and around one third of the 573 staff are to be made redundant. Draper is also preparing to reduce and recast the multitude of Sport England initiatives already running as part of what he describes as a "major cultural change in the organisation which entails moving away from being a prescriptive, centralised, controlling body".

He added: "We have 75 different programmes, and we don't want sport's governing bodies to have to jump through hoops and go pot-hunting in 75 different directions. We want to have more of a one-stop shop approach."

Draper believes sport has let itself down in two important respects in recent years.

"It has failed to speak out clearly," he said. "There has been too much squabbling and backbiting. Sport England's current level of Exchequer funding is £35m a year. The Arts get £335m, and they are successful because they lobby with one voice.

"The second thing sport has to do is present more robust evidence to the Government as to why it is helpful with issues such as health, social inclusiveness and crime prevention."

If it can do that, it may be able to access previously unconsidered funding streams.

You might have thought such links were self-evident. Think again, says Draper. "As far as the Treasury is concerned, they tend to operate on the lines of an old saying: 'In God we trust. Everyone else bring evidence."'

The other big money pots that lie tantalisingly within reach of sport resides under several other Lottery distributors such as the Heritage Fund. A scarcely-credible total of £3.5bn is being sat upon at the moment, and sport is understandably very keen to see if that money can't be moved around to their advantage.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has already held a meeting to discuss possible improvements in the Lottery distributors' practice. "We want to encourage the Government to look at a way of distributing funds in a more effective and efficient way," Draper said.

One of the key questions which is likely to be answered in the coming months is whether the arrival of Carter, who worked as a Government troubleshooter on the Picketts Lock and Wembley projects as well as costing this year's Commonwealth Games, will mean that sport gets listened to more readily in Treasury circles.

Brooking left Sport England with a manifest sense of frustration, commenting that too many people in Government failed either to understand or appreciate the true benefits of sport.

Certainly the response within Government circles to their own quango has been ambivalent at times. A spokesman at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport compared the set-up at Sport England – then the Sports Council – at the time it embraced its new role as a Lottery distributor to that of a corner-shop being asked to operate as a multi-national. "Since then," he added, "the financial operation has just been stuffed on top of the old corner-shop operation."

Now that the Government has installed one of its own to mind the store, will new stock start to arrive? If so, it certainly wouldn't be before time.