There is growing evidence that the UK is becoming warmer and wetter. For organisers of spectator sports like football, cricket and golf these changing weather patterns could soon present huge challenges.

According to Tanya Steele, CEO of WWF and a member of The Climate Coalition, the sports we love could be “irrevocably changed” in the not-so-distant future. In fact, climate change is already affecting sports across the country, with cancelled football matches, flooded cricket grounds and crumbling golf courses.

Research conducted by The Climate Coalition and the Priestley International Centre for Climate reveals that periods of extreme rainfall are on the increase and sports facilities are bearing the brunt.

“Six out of the seven wettest years in our history have occurred since 2000,” says Kate Sambrook, Priestley International Centre for Climate, in the Game Changer report. “The recent winters of 2013/14 and 2015/16 were notable for their record-breaking rainfall, with over 150% more rainfall than normal. The resulting flooding affected sports facilities across the country.

“Future projections by the Met Office indicate that winter rainfall could increase by 70-100% by the 2080s. This suggests that wet winters like the ones we have experienced lately could become more common in the future, increasing the risk of further damaging floods in the UK.”

A rise in event cancellations due to extreme weather

During the 2015/16 season, extreme weather events caused the cancellation of 25 Football League fixtures. Carlisle United was forced out of its home ground, Brunton Park, for 49 days by Storm Desmond – at a cost of nearly £200,000.

In international cricket, 27% of England’s home One Day Internationals since 2000 have been played with reduced overs because of rain disruptions. The number of matches impacted by rainfall has more than doubled since 2011, with 5% of matches during that time abandoned completely.

“There is clear evidence that climate change has had a huge impact on the game in the form of general wet weather and extreme weather events,” says Dan Musson, National Participation Manager at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). “I’ve been at the ECB since 2006 and we have had to implement flood relief efforts on half a dozen occasions.”

Meanwhile, golf is being impacted not only by increasing rainfall but also rising sea levels and storm surges. This is predicted to get worse – by 2100, sea levels are forecasted to rise by 50-100cm around the UK, speeding up the rate of coastal erosion.

“There is no question it’s becoming a huge factor,” says Steve Isaac, Director of Golf Course Management at The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. “I believe golf is more impacted by climate change than any other sport aside from skiing. We are feeling it now with increases in unplayable holes, winter course closures and disruption to professional tournaments. And the future threats are very real.”

Adds Chris Curnin, Director at Montrose Golf Links, “Over the past few years we have had to realign a few holes on the course as the erosion creeps into the course. In the face of rising seas and storm surges, Montrose has lost 70 metres of its coastline to the North Sea and is seeking funding to help protect the course with rock armour.”

It’s not only wetter winters that are posing a problem for UK sports, drier summers are also a threat – especially in the south of the country. Climate scientists predict a 40% decrease in summer rainfall in the region by the 2080s, along with an increase in average summer temperatures of up to 4.2°C.

The financial impact of extreme weather conditions

Jim Hardy, Club Secretary at Farnborough Football Club, says this trend is already having a real financial impact: “Having to use our pop-up sprinkler system on an almost constant basis this summer has cost the club an extra £8,000.”

The club is now looking at switching to an artificial pitch: “I think in 10 years time, more and more clubs at our level will have artificial pitches. This is because you have to use your pitch as much as possible, for concerts and hiring it out to other teams, to generate revenue and be viable.”

Being viable as a sports club also means hosting recreational games and encouraging participation at a local level, but even this is being jeopardised by climate change.

In December 2016, Sport England reported a 180,000 drop in the number of people playing grassroots football weekly, compared to a decade earlier.  Nearly 40,000 fewer people played cricket in 2015/6 than in 2005/6, while across England and Scotland there has been a 20% decline in golf club membership since 2005.

“It is a fact that increased rainfall and extreme events are causing more disruption in recreational golf,” says Richard Windows of the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI). “Course closure means reduced revenue from visitor and clubhouse income at a time when additional investment into course maintenance and infrastructure is required to combat the effects of extreme weather. It can trap clubs in a vicious cycle that isn’t their fault and it could potentially be a factor in membership decline.”

The impact on future competitive edge

Jamie Andrews-Britton, Club Chairman at Bromley Heath United Football Club, adds that the decline in participation could eventually lead to the UK losing its competitive edge on the football world stage.

“I’ve noticed that the kids aren’t able to play as many matches per season as they were when I first got involved with the club over a decade ago,” he says. “Then, you would maybe get one or two matches cancelled because of excessive rain but that’s changed significantly. For the past four years, we have had to cancel matches for a minimum of a month during the season.

“If we’re not supplying children for the club academies because they’re not able to play regularly over the season then eventually we won’t see the players feeding through to bigger clubs and the national squad.”

It’s not all bad news – the shocking statistics have provided a wake-up call for many in the sporting arena. According to The Climate Coalition, sports clubs are taking a lead by cutting emissions and inspiring others to follow.

“We are far from being powerless to act,” the organisation states. “In the sporting spirit of aiming to win, there are clear actions we can all take to get the right result. Sports clubs and governing bodies all need to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental impacts.”

If you’re keen to do your bit, the organisation recommends becoming a member of The British Association for Sustainable Sport (BASIS). BASIS is open to anyone with an interest in applying sustainable development principles to their sporting events. As The Climate Coalition tells us, “BASIS helps sports clubs share best practice in how to become more resilient and environmentally sustainable, and in doing so encourages their fans to do the same.”

For practical advice on reducing the environmental impact of your events, check out our Directory of Sustainable Suppliers and Organisations.

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