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‘I was preparing to wind things up…’ Report reveals how Sport Aberdeen battled to survive pandemic

From left, Active Schools' Victor Omomdi, lead programme coordinator Graham Dutton, head of marketing Sarah Gray, sales and retention manager Ally Barron and Active Schools' Aimee Beattie with leisure attendant Findlay Ritchie (front). Picture by Kath Flannery.

A new report has revealed how close Sport Aberdeen came to collapse as the pandemic hammered its takings last year.

The organisation runs more than 20 fitness venues across the city on behalf of the council – including golf courses, ski slopes, tennis courts, swimming pools and the Linx ice arena.

When the Covid outbreak swept the country, bosses had to work out how much cash they could stand to lose under lockdown rules.

They estimated the charity’s coffers would suffer to the sum of £6.5 million.

Sport Aberdeen managing director, Alistair Robertson, told us he then spent weeks “preparing to wind the company up” when things were at their most dire.

A new report highlighting the ups and downs of the 2020/21 financial year details Sport Aberdeen’s struggle to survive the mammoth loss.

How close did Sport Aberdeen come to the brink?

Had the outfit gone to the wall, several popular facilities could have been left abandoned with thousands of members affected.

Aberdeen City Council’s decision to award its full grant of more than £5 million has been hailed as the crucial difference-maker.

Alistair said it “would have collapsed” without that badly-needed cash injection.

Explore our interactive map to see the facilities which could have been lost if Sport Aberdeen folded – 

‘The bleakness of the scale…’

Alistair told us that he was forced to prepare for the harsh reality of closing down the organisation.

He said: “At the time this was all unraveling, we were not entitled to furlough to start with.

“We had to campaign for that, while being uncertain if the council would be able to maintain its grant.

“We had about three weeks or so where I was preparing to wind the company up.”

These figures show how hard the pandemic hit Sport Aberdeen.

Alistair added: “Although we had funds in reserve, it was just the bleakness of the scale of the problem.

“When we were made part of the job retention scheme that helped, and when the council managed to provide its full support that got us to the year-end.

“We lost £4.5m in the year, but we had managed to lock down as much expense as we could.

“Without that £5m grant we would not have been able to make it.”

This chart shows how income plummeted across 2020/21.

Sport Aberdeen in numbers:

  • Despite the many closures across 2020/21, there were still 354,650 visits to Sport Aberdeen venues.
  • However, that is a steep drop from the almost 1.5 million in 2019/20.
  • The charity’s new watersport sessions at Rubislaw Quarry are proving popular – with more than 1,000 customers.
  • As of March 31, there were 5,549 Get Active members. That’s a 31% reduction.
  • 100,400 rounds of golf were played on the city’s courses in 2020/21.
  • 35 furloughed workers took on volunteer or secondment roles in lockdown including in front-line NHS roles.
Alistair at the opening of the Aberdeen Tennis Centre in 2018. Picture by Scott Baxter

After closing in March 2020, gyms across Scotland were finally able to reopen at the end of last August.

But by Christmas, the second wave of coronavius meant lockdown rules were tightened.

Another four months of closure followed – and the charity’s venues welcomed 1,300 fitness fans back within its first two days of reopening in late April.

How Sport Aberdeen made lockdown easier for residents

But as well as ensuring the charity’s own survival, members were concerned with the mental and physical wellbeing of members deprived of fitness-boosting visits during lockdown.

Staff devised a new scheme to ensure people could stay active even when confined to their homes during the strictest periods of lockdown.

Under the initiative, they dropped off mounds of exercise gear to more than 150 members.

The bundles included 2,000kg of equipment, more than 80 body pump kits, 700kg of dumbbells and 100 step blocks.

The equipment was gladly received.

Alistair said: “In the very early days, we were thinking about what to do with our workforce and our facilities.

“We thought, ‘why not help people keep going?’

“We didn’t know then how long lockdown would last, but we made sure there were online classes and programmes to follow as well as handing out the kit.

“And the reaction really was extremely positive.

“People were very grateful and some chose not to cancel their memberships out of loyalty.”

Sport Aberdeen staff are keen to welcome more people into facilities. Picture by Kath Flannery

Still work to be done

Alistair told us that Sport Aberdeen is now operating at about 70% of its pre-pandemic capacity.

His priority is now to entice lapsed or reluctant members back.

He added: “There’s little doubt that being physically active got a profile and a value that’s never been seen before during the pandemic.

“And there has been a huge spike in interest in our outdoor activities.

“But for now we are still trying to build the company back so we reach our full potential.”

You can read the full annual report here.

Rubislaw Quarry opens to public for first time in 50 years for canoe sessions

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