Coronavirus has been like a huge heart attack to the system for UCC sports

I T was the conference call last week that brought home to Morgan Buckley the scale of the problem.
Coronavirus has been like a huge heart attack to the system for UCC sports

Morgan Buckley, Director of Sport and Physical Activity, University College Cork. Photo By Tomas Tyner, UCC.
Morgan Buckley, Director of Sport and Physical Activity, University College Cork. Photo By Tomas Tyner, UCC.

IT was the conference call last week that brought home to Morgan Buckley the scale of the problem.

The UCC head of sport was just one of over 30 people involved in the call, all of them managing sport in third-level institutions.

“There are 90 staff employed in the Mardyke Arena, for instance, and they’re just part of the thousands who are employed in sport.

“I don’t think people realise just how big that industry is. The Federation of Irish Sport estimates that up to 30,000 people may be employed in sport and physical activity in Ireland, full- and part-time.

“Look at the national governing bodies — there are 60 to 70 of those, all with administration, athletes, coaches. In the case of rugby and soccer, those are sports with hundreds of contracted athletes in their systems, they have coaches, conditioning experts, managers, administrators.

“In UCC, we have 80 coaches we support — mostly in a part-time capacity — who help the clubs in the college.

“Then there are the 90 people in the Mardyke delivering all sorts of programmes and classes — this is a time of year when normally there’d be Easter camps with 20-odd people working on them.

“Those camps, the summer swimming camps, all of that has come to a halt. It’s been like a huge heart attack to the system.”

In UCC, they’ve been dealing with both the short- and long-term implications of the lockdown.

Buckley is on the board of Student Sport Ireland and on the development committee of FISU, the international governing body for student sport, but his recent focus has been on UCC — both long-term planning and dealing with the lockdown.

“What we’ve been doing in the last 12 months is putting a shape on our sports system, and it’s really big.

“There are over 4,500 members of sports clubs in UCC, and about 13-14,000 students active in the Mardyke Arena.

“In last week’s conference call with Student Sport Ireland, we were planning for what sport would look like, and digging into what sport actually does.

“For our part, we’re working on finalising the Keep Well channel in UCC with the Cork Sports Partnership and the Mardyke Arena and our own team of physical activity and mental health experts — it’s aimed at keeping people physically active at home.

“That takes quite an amount of co-ordination, particularly the mental health side as people start to approach their exams.

“In UCC, we have a community of 20,000, plus 2,500 staff to look after, so that Keep Well channel will connect all of them.”

There are different challenges with elite students, he adds.

“We have over 100 scholarship students, some of whom are training for the Olympics.

“We’ve had 10 rowers involved at either World or Olympic level, so through the scholarship programme they’ve all either had their courses deferred or their plans updated to allow them to prepare for the Olympics next year.

“That’s needed huge work from Michèle Power, who manages the Quercus programme, and Jeff Gomez, our performance manager, working with Rowing Ireland to help those guys.

“We’re also involved with the Mardyke Arena on the Keep Cork Active initiative, with the Cork Sports Partnership and Cork City Council — there’s a forum to reach out to 18 different districts across the city and county.”

Despite the lockdown, the planning Buckley usually associates with this time of the year still has to be done.

“From September, there’s six to eight months usually it’s very busy for all the teams.

“In college, we estimate there are approximately 400 different competitions that our teams take part in — local leagues, national leagues for our teams.

“That’s a big commitment, ensuring students compete at the highest possible level and also at the recreational level.

“At the moment, though, what we’re doing is a whole range of scenario planning — is sport coming back on a limited basis in the autumn? If it doesn’t, what happens then and how do you keep mentally together? Will there be a business model for the university?

“There’s huge pressure on the third level sector, and where does sport fit into that? How can we remain relevant?

“We also have to manage the facilities, to make sure they’re operational — the pool, the physical plant, the playing pitches, all of those require maintenance to ensure they can keep going.

“And we have to look at merchandising and branding, because when all of this comes back, revenue will be needed. Something we’ve done with colleagues in student services is to set up a hardship fund.

“That’s something people won’t get their heads around until the autumn, but we anticipate that a lot of students will have severe financial situations to deal with, so some of the funds we haven’t used this quarter have been allocated to a co-ordinated hardship fund in UCC.

“Clubs and societies have come together with other sectors to create a pot of funding to help students, which shows solidarity among the students.

“And that funding will have an effect come the autumn, because anyone who requires commercial or local sponsorship will be under pressure.”

The boost that sport can give is vital once life returns to normality, says Buckley. “If you look at amateur sport, it’s used to shutting down every year. I think the local GAA club or soccer club is used to taking a break and then the machinery cranks back into action.

“There’s a huge job for sport to keep people connected and to give people something to look forward to. We’re seeing people doing that, and we’ve set up online platforms for people to keep in touch as they do so.

“I think the big challenge may be for professional sports. All the professional leagues have a different business model — they need revenue and every month they’re out of action that’s another serious amount of money that’s removed from the equation.”

And not just professional sports: Buckley estimates the investment in GAA scholarships as “between €1.2m and €2m in third level GAA: we had 46 GPA scholarships in UCC alone”.

That’s the background to that 31-person conference call last week.

“Nobody would have thought that kind of network was involved across the country, as well as the whole group of people involved at the coalface in sport across the country.

“There are challenges ahead, and it’s not going to look the same, clearly, in the autumn, and we have to gear up for that.

“The big question is this: what’s the meaning of sport and where does it sit? There’s a huge amount going on but as a sector I think it’s underestimated.

“There are 225,000 students in third level across the country, and sport is a big part of their lives — and the life of the country.”

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