National governing body England Athletics explain why, contrary to rumour, they will not be merging with UK Athletics

THE latest issue of AW includes a nine-page news focus on the current political turmoil in domestic athletics in Britain. It has been a winter of discontent with UK Athletics chief executive Niels de Vos resigning and the governing body’s chairman Richard Bowker precariously clinging on to his role after clashing with England Athletics and other home countries. In recent months UKA and England Athletics have remained silent on the issues but ahead of a UK members’ council meeting and AGM on Friday (Dec 14) our latest magazine includes reaction from the English area bodies (with particularly feisty responses from Northern Athletics and the South of England), Scottish Athletics, a statement from UKA and a detailed Q&A with England Athletics, which we are publishing online in its entirety here…

Athletics Weekly: England Athletics has been in the national press recently linked to the UKA leadership crisis. The governing bodies have not spoken about it to the public or media, so why does England Athletics want to break the silence now?

England Athletics: It is correct to say there has been some negative press recently about our sport but EA believe that there is much to celebrate. The end of the year is traditionally a time for review and we wanted to share some of the positive work of the year from an EA perspective. We wanted to showcase what we do, and why, and the impact of our investment, including the continued growth of club and athlete registration and affiliation.

These include our recent #GoCoach campaign, reaching a milestone 100 Club Runs (an EA funded road running club coaching programme) this year, our age group international teams programme and a successful Commonwealth Games. We also recently launched a new website as we aim to ensure that our members and partners have regular access to good quality and accurate information.

As the membership and development body for athletics and running in England, we operate on a consultative basis with our members and partners. We work together with the other home countries federations and UKA to pool our experience, research and evidence to ensure that the management of our sport at a grassroots level is structured in the best way possible. This enables us to deliver and grow opportunities for everyone to experience our great sport whilst also developing a talent pipeline of athletes and runners to compete in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and British vests.

We are only 20 months into a four-year strategy cycle and while we are satisfied with current progress, we are well aware of the challenges that lie ahead in the coming months and period through to April 2021. We are already beginning to work on our plans for post 2021, although some elements, such as Sport England funding, won’t be known for some time yet.

AW: We hear Richard Bowker wants to absorb EA into UKA. Is this true and, if so, how likely to happen?

EA: England Athletics and UKA will not be merging and we will continue to work together, alongside the other home countries, to create a high-level long-term UK wide strategy that supports and aligns to our respective roles and responsibilities within our sport.

England Athletics is currently working to deliver our own strategy, “Athletics and Running: for everyone, forever”, which we developed following consultation with our members. We have reduced annual dependency on government funding to below 30%, and have increased our own income streams through membership, road race licensing, event revenues and through partnership working, including commercial partnerships.

The number of people participating in our club sport is increasing, particularly in running, and the number of people participating recreationally across England each month has climbed to 7.2m. Performance levels of athletes across many events, beneath elite level, continue to improve and we have enjoyed a successful Commonwealth Senior Games in 2018. In 2018 England Athletics took more than 40 teams to represent England at international level across different disciplines both at home and abroad. An illustration of how important our development work is in this space. We are also proud of the work we have initiated in partnership with the masters federation during the last couple of years, introducing more opportunities for club runners to represent their country on the road across different distances.

The governance of the sport underwent significant structural change in the past and we strongly believe that in recent years we have developed a close understanding of the needs of the sport at a grassroots level. While there are clearly challenges that we all face, such as funding levels, the urgent need to recruit and train more officials, the need to protect our facilities and our ambition to increase participation in track and field, there are nevertheless many success stories and volunteers across the sport have worked hard to deliver many of those.

We believe that our current approach, founded on partnership working with a range of different organisations including member clubs and competition providers like the English Schools AA (whom we have funded for a decade now), county associations and other voluntary run bodies, is working and is producing results.

AW: With Niels de Vos leaving and Richard Bowker’s position precarious, is it fair to describe the sport as having a ‘leadership crisis’?

EA: UKA is best placed to comment on its own staffing and organisational structure. Leadership at England Athletics is stable, is democratic and as a membership organisation we regularly consult with our members and key stakeholders to ensure that we are delivering our strategic priorities, which are:

  1. To expand the capacity of the sport by supporting and developing its volunteers and other workforce: our key ambition is a 6% increase in the number of licensed leaders, coaches and officials every year. We are currently on track to achieve this.
  2. To sustain and increase participation and performance in our sport: our key ambition is 160,000 more individuals registered with England Athletics through our athlete registration (23,000) and RunTogether programme (137,000) combined. We are currently on track to achieve this.
  3. To influence participation in the wider athletics and running market. Our key ambition is to have 650,000 more people to become regular athletes and runners. We are currently on track to achieve this.

AW: Do you support Bowker as chair of UKA or do you feel he should leave?

EA: As the governing body for athletics and running in England, our priority is to work with all members of the UKA board and staff to ensure that our members are served in the best possible way and we will continue to collaborate with the other home country athletics bodies and UKA to achieve this. Collaborative areas we are particularly focusing on currently are talent, coach education and commercial partnerships.

Our belief that we should put the development of all home country member clubs and affiliated athletes across the UK at the heart of the decision-making process and this has been shared with the UKA Board and we are looking forward to continuing to work with them to create a robust and evidenced strategy for our sport for the future.

As you no doubt know, we already work closely with UKA, sharing functions such as office accommodation, payroll, some IT functions, procurement and welfare where efficiencies can be delivered, and look forward to working hard to identify other opportunities to work together to benefit our members and partners. We will continue to work to identify if there are further efficiencies can be attained through joint working.

AW: Do you think the current uncertainty has led to a number of potential UKA CEO applicants being put off from going for the position?

EA: This is really a question for the UKA Board to answer as they are in charge of the recruitment process.

AW: It is 14 years since Sir Andrew Foster investigated the sport and came up with a series of recommendations in his Foster Review. It led to the creation of England Athletics but how successful do you think the sport has been in following those recommendations and is England Athletics happy with the way the structure of the sport has evolved?

EA: The Foster review was well over a decade ago. We, of course, acknowledge that in the early years there were significant challenges, but those were a long time ago. The number of affiliated clubs and registered athletes in England has grown considerably in the past decade and the demography of the sport has changed, with more women than ever registering as athletes and the off-track community contributing significantly to overall growth.

We have consulted annually in one way or another since 2012 and we are happy that from a governance perspective, the structure of the sport is the right one and our relationships with members and our many partners are as strong as they have ever been. We are in the process of working with our regional councils on refreshing their role and to support them in adopting their primary role as our communication and consultative vehicle with our sport across the country and adopting best practice in terms of the sport governance code.

We do recognise that we need to continue to work on communicating our respective roles and remits to the sport and, all these years on, there are still those that don’t realise that the area competition providers, for example, only have responsibility for putting on specific competitions, with no wider remit.

As the membership and development body for athletics and running, England Athletics works to secure resources to enable the development of the sport for member clubs and affiliated athletes and runners. We support affiliated clubs to prosper by developing more and better coaches and recruiting and supporting volunteers, leaders and officials. England Athletics provides and supports competition opportunities at an international (England representative), national, area and county level.

AW: What’s your view on the English areas and especially Northern Athletics’ introduction of an area affiliation fee?

EA: We have provided grants to each of the areas during the past decade and that investment has totalled over £1m. Area competition is an important element of the competition pathway, but is one set of competitions among many, although many in the sport still incorrectly believe that the areas have wider remits than they in fact do. Their responsibilities begin and end with the provision of area championship meetings for track and field, cross country and road. So their output comprises outdoor and indoor senior and age group track and field championships, plus the cross country championships and the two sets of road relays.

In each area, the off track events generally generate a small surplus and the track and field championships a small deficit. The grants that EA has made to them have largely been used to pay for a small core staff and office overheads.

In line with our own review of practice as a result of reduction in income, we have encouraged each area to seek efficiencies and to find new ways to generate the revenue they need. All parties agree that in an ideal world the areas would, like other competition providers in the UK, be self-sufficient. We certainly support that aspiration.

At the same time, we have never said that we won’t fund them at all, just that with our own income streams working on four-year cycles, we cannot commit in writing to specific figures or to long term agreements.

In the case of Northern Athletics, EA fully supports their right as a competition provider to charge what they see fit and to initiate a registration scheme if they feel that is in the best interests of the sport. While there are undoubtedly others out there who would be happy to stage the meetings if Northern Athletics could not, we recognise their heritage and their position of the provider of championship competition in the north.

We did offer to help shape their scheme and to work together in ensuring alignment with the national scheme. However, NA chose, as is their right, to proceed with their own approach.

Our biggest concern about the scheme as it currently stands is that it prevents athletes born and raised and resident in the North but who are members of midlands, southern or Scottish/Welsh clubs from competing. Such athletes number over 150 (of those that have competed in recent years) and they have no access to area competition of any sort.

Also of concern is that only 60% of northern clubs have signed up to the scheme, which means that participation in these events will be limited. We are due to speak to Northern Athletics about this imminently.

We have already started to discuss grants for 2019 with both the Midland Counties AA and South of England AA. Following positive discussions with both organisations in recent weeks we are looking forward to continued partnership working. We particularly welcome SEAA’s recent strategy and the aspirations outlined within it.

AW: When it comes to funding, can you clarify the current situation with regards your Sport England grants?

EA: We receive valuable funding from our partner Sport England, but our reliance on this has decreased year on year thanks to the support of our clubs and athletes and commercial partnerships with sponsors such as DW Fitness First. The funding from Sport England for the period 2017-2021 must be spent on the projects that Sport England has agreed to fund, either as a whole or in part, and that these projects span all areas of activity including work on talent development and direct club support – not just to participation projects as has been posited in the past.

As a not-for-profit membership organisation, the sources of our overall annual income for the last year was broken down as follows: membership and registration 36%; Sport England 30%; other grant funding 8%; courses and workshops 14%; road race licencing 6%; commercial partnerships 3%; event/competition income 1%; other income 2%

Our total expenditure, at a headline level during the year 2017-18 was as follows: club support – £2.76m; coach and athlete development – £1.90m; competition and events – £0.97m; overhead and support costs – £0.78; communication and business development – £0.53; membership and affiliation – £0.50.

AW: Is England Athletics satisfied with the help it offers to the grassroots or are there areas that would love to do more in if you had the resources? If so, which areas of the sport would you like to help more?

EA: England Athletics provides a wide range of services, programmes, qualifications and development opportunities, events and discounts for its affiliated grassroots clubs and athletes and of course we would be delighted to do even more for our members and clubs if we had more resources. We recognise that protecting and preserving our club facilities is important, particularly against a backdrop of financial challenge at local authority level. We of course are supporting clubs in this space through our local Club Support Management teams but with further funding we could do more. We also need to continue to work to qualify more coaches and officials available to work in our sport, particularly as the number of participants continues to grow. We work together with the other home countries and with UKA to tackle both areas of work.

We support our 1350 affiliated clubs (covering track and field, road running, fell, hill, trail and cross country clubs), 172,000 registered athletes and 360 affiliated organisations to prosper.

Our values of pride, integrity and inclusivity are embedded in our DNA as a membership body to guide our work to help make running and athletics in England the most popular sport the country:

» Our sport has continued to grow since the release of our strategic plan in 2016 with an 11% average improvement year on year in top 10 performances across all events and England athletes securing 15 medals and 19 top 4 finishes at the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2017.  Our ambition for supporting more athletes to deliver better performances at all levels of our sport remains our long-term ambition.

» The overall running market looks healthy with at least 7 million people running twice a month or more. In addition to the 7 million regular runners, there are about 6 million people who are more occasional runners, about 8 million people who are lapsed and about 4 million people who have an interest in running but not yet started.

» The England Athletics social running programme RunTogether has reached 80,000 participants in its 18 months since launch. Our clubs are utilising this programme to engage more people in our sport with particular focus on women. With around 700,000 bookings made by runners to run in more than 2000 national running groups across England we are pleased with the progress of this programme.

» The number of licensed and insured road races in England has grown to more than 3500 which is roughly 200 more than in this time last year. England Athletics invests significant funds to support this programme.

» During 2017/18, 410,000 people were influenced in some way by England Athletics to participate in running or athletics on a regular basis – a figure which has increased form 265,000 in 2016/17.

» In 2017/18 there were 172,000 club athletes and runners registered with England Athletics.

» The number of registered athletes and runners has increased by 6% in the last 12 months and by 73% since 2009. (Source: England Athletics Data).

» The number of women club athletes registering with England Athletics during 2017/18 was 81,017. This equates to 47% of all registered athletes.

» The number of registered women athletes and runners has increased by 7% in the last 12 months and by 92% since 2009.

» Currently 40% of runners are from socio-economic groups C2DE, 15% have a limiting long-term disability or illness and 11% are from a BAME origin. Of those people who express an interest in running but currently don’t the percentage from the groups above are higher than current active runners, this demonstrates the potential to increase diversity in the future. (Source: England Athletics Monthly Tracker, March 2018).

Resource planning is based upon the results of our 360°consultation process which helps shape the work delivered by England Athletics to achieve our strategic priorities. We are about to announce a review of how our national council and regional forums operate which will be voted on via an EGM on January 30 to enable this consultation process to reflect more viewpoints based on the diversity of our great sport.

By listening and consulting with our membership to understand what’s needed at a grassroots level to develop athletics and running, we support our member clubs and athletes from start to finish with, for example, coach development opportunities, resource provision for whole club development planning, volunteer training and recognition, welfare support and event registration.

Extending the services, programmes, qualifications and development opportunities, entries and discounts for our member clubs and registered athletes would be based on this consultation process to build on what we currently offer.

The benefits of affiliation can be seen here.

AW: Politics aside, Commonwealth Games years are always big for the home countries and England Athletics must be proud of the way the athletes competed on the Gold Coast?

EA: Absolutely, we are delighted with the results of our athletes thanks to the hard work behind the scenes by our coaches who have developed a pipeline of talented competitors alongside participating in our coaching development and qualification programmes.

Behind the medal headlines were the personal triumphs of individual athletes and the relay teams competing ‘down under’ in April with 41 athletes competing for the first time in a senior multi-sport games. Gold Coast 2018 also featured an integrated programme of para events and the 17 athletes we took flew the flag proudly, none more so than Jade Jones who had the honour of being Team England flag bearer at the closing ceremony.

We’re looking forward to Birmingham 2022. We take many English teams to compete each year at home and abroad as part of their ongoing athlete development and 2022 presents a great opportunity for these aspiring athletes to represent England at a home Commonwealth Games.

AW: With the year almost at its end, are there any other points you’d like to make or a message you’d like to give to English athletes, coaches, officials and volunteers?

EA: There is much to celebrate in our sport and we must continue to look forwards and not backwards and we should all embrace change through positive partnership working at all levels, utilising technology, adapting our sport to meet the needs of participants who have a lot of choice for the use of their leisure time. Our focus is on helping everyone in our sport pull together by being constructive and forward thinking with the common goal of making athletics and running better and healthier in 2019 and beyond.

» A version of this article appears in the December 13 issue of AW, in addition to interviews with the chairs Scottish Athletics, Northern Athletics, the South of England and more