Sport in its modern form is facing into its greatest challenge in Ireland. We are accustomed to looking forward to a new year with new hope, as the cliché goes, but anyone involved in sport at any level cannot but face into 2011 with some trepidation.
This is particularly true for the thousands of clubs across all sports which rely almost entirely on volunteers and fundraising to exist -- or at least to provide any level of continued service to the community in which they are based. The ability of clubs to call on volunteers has been hit by the wave of emigration this country is now experiencing. Rural areas appear hardest hit as small towns, villages, and parishes are wiped out by a mass exodus not seen since the 1980s. The Kerryman recently reported that Kerry is being drained by emigration and that entire communities in the county were feeling the strain.
Before Christmas, South Kerry Fine Gael TD Tom Sheahan said: "In my own parish alone, 96 people between the ages of 20 and 24 have left in the last 12 months. That's a whole generation of people in that one age-group that have gone because they have no option of securing gainful employment."
It is important to note that we are not talking about a small constituency of Irish life here. In this country, there are something in the region of 12,000 clubs across a host of sports, from Gaelic football and hurling, to angling and baton twirling, with a combined membership of approximately 1.7 million members.
Obviously, GAA clubs are the most entrenched in the vast number of communities in Ireland and, anecdotally, they are feeling the pinch. They are finding it harder to field teams because of a lack of numbers, and they are also finding it hard to source enough volunteers to coach underage teams. And if GAA clubs are feeling it, then you can be absolutely certain that other sports are suffering too.
For most clubs, the biggest problem this year will be finding enough money just to keep afloat.
Greater care will be given than ever before to every single cent spent by every single club in 2011. Those in charge of the purse strings will know that every cent spent will be hard earned. Most grassroots operations rely heavily on the generosity and goodwill of the people in their community and -- perhaps even more so -- of local businesses.
Businesses, as we know, have been squeezed every which way by higher taxes, reduced consumer spending and reduced support from banks, while unemployment has devastated communities.
Fundraising relies on people having some level of discretionary income every month, but a combination of the austerity measures announced in last month's Budget and unfathomable price hikes, like that announced last week by the VHI, has meant that even the most well-meaning of supporters cannot commit to fundraising ventures.
There is generally far better awareness in Irish homes now than ever before of the importance of well-being, and of how participation in sport can foster a healthier nation. The problem now is that hard-pressed families in many instances cannot afford to give any more.
Politically, the contribution made by sports clubs has been taken for granted for so long that there is no will to have any kind of structural supports for the work they do. The Irish Sports Council recently put forward data which suggested that for every €100 spent by the government on sport, it gets €149 back in the form of taxes and other revenues. The economic value of volunteering is put at between €322m and €582m, annually.
But decades of institutionalised short-sightedness at leadership level in this country means that clubs will fold in the next couple of years. It is inevitable. And another great tragedy of this generation of loss.
Sunday Indo Sport