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‘It’s worse than Covid’: Sport Aberdeen boss fears double blow of crippling costs and cancelled memberships

Sport Aberdeen boss Alistair Robertson on how rising costs will challenge the organisation
Sport Aberdeen managing director Alistair Robertson shares his fears about the energy costs crisis. Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson

The energy crisis could be “worse than Covid” for swimming pools and health centres.

Sport Aberdeen, which runs more than 20 facilities across the city, has already closed one popular pool to help keep bills down.

Now managing director Alistair Robertson believes the charity could face a “double whammy” of soaring prices combined with cancelled memberships as people scramble to reduce their own outgoings.

“It’s like going into the pandemic,” he revealed.

In our exclusive interview, Alistair tells us:

  • Why the costs crisis could be even worse than Covid
  • How he hopes to “keep people going” – even if they can’t afford the usual fees
  • And how upcoming developments like a new Padel tennis court at Westburn Park could help to keep other sites afloat
Sport Aberdeen managing director Alistair Robertson, at the soon-to-be-opened Get Active centre in Northfield. Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson

Sport Aberdeen facing huge hike in bills

We met Alistair at the Β£4.8 million Get Active @ Northfield centre, while the finishing touches were being added ahead of its opening later this month.

But he wasn’t in a celebratory mood, fitting our chat around high-level talks about just how the organisation will cope with the months ahead.

He half-jokingly suggests the freshly-revamped venue “could be closed again in two months”.

The grand opening comes amid warnings that the plug could be pulled on scores of swimming pools by the end of the year.

Sport Aberdeen is a registered charity which operates fitness venues on behalf of the council.

As well as pools, that includes golf courses, ski slopes, tennis courts and the Linx ice arena.

The outfit is facing a Β£400,000 increase in bills, and Alistair suggests that it “could end up being worse”.

Alistair Robertson of Sport Aberdeen fears the costs ahead.

‘It’s a double whammy’

He likens the uncertainty to the jarring onset of the pandemic, but worries that the looming crisis could prove even more harmful.

He said: “With Covid, we knew once furlough was established then we could visualise what our income was going to be.

“But of course, we were shut down, so the biggest cost every month was payroll as operating costs disappeared.

“Now we have all our operating costs, plus huge pressure from energy and the possibility of people not being able to afford to come.

“It’s a double whammy.

“Our costs are going up and it’s quite likely people will make these decisions…”

Weights awaiting use at the Northfield centre. Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson

The first warning sign of trouble ahead was the closure of the Beach Leisure Centre pool in August.

As Sport Aberdeen’s most expensive facility, the temporary shutdown was said to be an act of self-preservation helping to weather the oncoming storm.

Calls to protect access to swimming pools in Aberdeen with Β£100,000 extra for Sport Aberdeen were refused - as council chiefs warn of financial "uncertainty" ahead.
The swimming pool at the Beach Leisure Centre has been closed as Sport Aberdeen costs pile up. Picture by Kenny Elrick/DCT Media.

Need to ‘control added costs’

Asked about the potential for more closures, Alistair is unable to offer any guarantees.Β 

He reflects: “It has taken us eight years to build the company, gradually adding on bits.

“And we have been well governed by an extremely careful board.

“But many others will have nothing in the bank, that’s why we will see a whole range of big locations at risk of closing.

“We closed the pool at the beach because it was our biggest energy user, as a company we can’t run at a loss.

“Households are getting absolutely laid out daily, everybody understands what is happening.

“If we have added costs and we don’t control them, we will go bust.”

How will Sport Aberdeen ensure those hardest-hit can stay active?

During winter, Aberdeen is far from the ideal place for outdoor exercise.

In the months ahead, residents who enjoy keeping fit will often rely on health centres to stay active.

But what if they can’t afford to go?

The managing director doesn’t want people to feel ‘priced out’ of keeping fit. Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson

Sport Aberdeen already runs a Get Active For Less scheme, but Alistair is considering going a step further than that.

With the hardest-hit facing stark choices about heating or eating this winter, he is looking into subsidising fees.

It was a visitor to the similarly revamped Sheddocksley facility that helped convince him how valuable these fitness facilities can be.

Sheddocksley Sports Centre.

He said: “I had a chap there who said if not for the programme there, he would have topped himself.

“He was very very honest about it.”

‘Life is going to be tough’

Alistair continued: “If 1,000 people say to us they can’t afford a membership, are we better off asking ‘what can you pay?’ to keep them going.

“This is not speaking from a commercial perspective, but we know life is going to be tough for people.

“Of course this might invite debate from those still paying full rates, you can’t judge these things on how much people earn as everyone has different circumstances.

“It’s a massively difficult thing to get right.

“But what feels right to me is ensuring people are still able to use our services, without having to choose to stop being physically active.”

The Northfield facility will soon be up and running. Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson

Northfield centre opening amid financial storm

We are touring the new Northfield venue the day after contractors handed over the keys to Sport Aberdeen.

Based on three years of planning, management is confident it will be popular.

With clinical space for the NHS and a range of sessions, Alistair wants it to be a community gathering place as much as a haven for “gym bunnies”.

“And there won’t be an hour goes by when there isn’t anybody in the pool,” he added.

“There’s already huge demand for kids’ activities and lessons.”

Padel courts could help Sport Aberdeen costs burden

Another exciting development which should help make ends meet are new Padel tennis courts planned for Westburn Park.

Padel is an easier form of the game similar to squash, and it already has celebrity devotees in Lionel Messi, David Beckham and Jurgen Klopp.

An artists impression of how the courts off Cornhill Road will look. The venture could be one solution to the Sport Aberdeen costs crisis.

Bringing the fast-growing phenomenon to Aberdeen was a no-brainer for Alistair.

He explained: “We know it will be profitable, and the money it generates will offset activities elsewhere.

“We are the city’s leading sports provider, we want to be at the cutting edge – and if we don’t do it, someone else will come in and make a killing off it.”

What next for Sport Aberdeen?

Sport Aberdeen’s triumphant emergence from the pandemic is detailed in a new financial report.

When its golf courses reopened, the booking system was overwhelmed by 2,000 people eager to get a game in.

You can see the 2021-22 financial report here:

But that popularity may not be enough to see it through these troubling times.

Citing the knock-on benefits to the NHS, with active people far less likely to need hospital treatment, Alistair believes some public funding is warranted to keep the doors of UK fitness facilities open.

He fears places might need to be “on the brink of complete collapse” before any central funding is given out, however.


Do you think public cash should be used to keep gyms and swimming pools open? Let us know in our comments section


‘Please keep yourself active’

Looking towards the weeks ahead, Alistair added: “To do all this work and be where we are now is really unfortunate, we really don’t know what we are heading into.

“We are spending the next few weeks trying to anticipate what the situation will look like.

“But I really am appealing to everybody: try your best to keep yourself fit, whether by going to Sport Aberdeen or elsewhere.

“Just keep yourself going over the winter.

“People’s physical routine is one of life’s essentials, and we will do whatever we can to help keep people going.”

The new Get Active @ Northfield centre will open in late September.

Read more about how Sport Aberdeen survived the pandemic here:

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

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