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What does COVID-19 mean for sports societies?

By Ellie Hutchings

Design by Amelia Field

As students across the UK return to university and lockdown eases, sports societies – which were previously a huge part of university life – are being forced to rethink how they will operate this academic year.

Complying with social distancing measures will need careful consideration. The government guidance on the return of sporting activity has allowed facilities such as courts and gyms to reopen as long as they comply to various guidelines, however, at present, many teams sports will be unable to return to normal in England, due the changes in social contact announced on 9 September. Groups of more than six people are not permitted, and this regulation rules out a huge number of sports. For example, netball needs seven players per team, football 11 and rugby 15. Basketball only needs five players per team, however there’s still no possibility of holding a match because that would require 10 players on the court at one time.

At this stage, it’s unclear as to what sports societies will be able to offer in terms of training, competing and social events. Such uncertainty will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on the popularity and membership numbers of groups, and therefore their funding, which will have huge consequences for how societies operate. Sports societies rely on joining fees to fund entry into leagues, hire facilities, book training sessions, and hold socials. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that societies will be able to charge full fees, given the likelihood that – at least for the first term – they won’t be able to play, hold training sessions or organise socials. Lowering membership fees seems a sensible option, and may also help to attract new members who may be slightly hesitant, given the current environment.

With that being said, it still seems unlikely that sports societies will attract as many new members as they have in previous years. For some societies this may mean they simply won’t be able to afford to run, or to recruit enough members to get a team together.

However, for some societies, training and playing may still be possible – if not straight away then later in the year. While it seems that team sports are out of the question for the foreseeable future, non-contact, individual sports such as badminton and tennis may still be able to hold matches. These societies may find it easier to navigate the new guidelines, as long as they are able to limit training sessions to a maximum of six people at a time.

Something that all sports societies will struggle with particularly is no longer being able to hold the social events that they are so integral to their appeal. Themed club nights, initiations and big Christmas dinners are all recognisable aspects of the university experience. This year, social events will be very different. In order to adhere to government guidelines societies will only be able to host events with a maximum of six people attending, meaning that whole-team events will be impossible for almost all. Perhaps, virtual socials via Zoom and other video conferencing services will be the answer.

While sporting societies may have a rambunctious reputation, they play a vital role in the social lives of many students, allowing them to meet like-minded individuals and form new friendships as well as providing all the benefits that come with regular exercise. Hopefully, universities will do all they can to support societies so they can continue to provide a fun and welcoming experience for both new and returning students, despite the hurdles they face.

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