Analysis: The public benefit provided by sports and games

The Charity Commission has launched a consultation on what is likely to prove a complex area, writes Kaye Wiggins

Bowls: should sports clubs be charities?
Bowls: should sports clubs be charities?

Allowing sports groups to become charities might seem, at first glance, to be straightforward and uncontroversial. It is easy to argue that sport provides a public benefit by creating a healthier population and even cohesive communities.

But the Charity Commission has discovered, since the Charities Act 2006 introduced "the advancement of amateur sport" as a charitable purpose, that the situation is more complicated. This is shown in the report that sets out its consultation, launched last week, on sports charities and public benefit.

The commission's first challenge is to define what constitutes a sport. The act refers to "sports or games that promote health by involving physical or mental skill or exertion", but attempting to define this in more detail is more complex. The consultation document points out, for example, that cycling is in some cases a sport but in others a mode of transport or a solo exercise in a gym.

Allowing groups that promote games, rather than sports, to be charities is more complicated still. Games can provide a public benefit, the commission's document says, by improving mental capacity in the same way that sports do for physical health. This is why the Hitchin Bridge Club was registered as a charity last week. But how far should this be extended? The document asks whether playing poker online (in a "points-based, non-gambling environment") offers the same benefits as playing cribbage in a local team.

Another difficulty is that many sports clubs charge fees to join. The commission's rules on public benefit say that "people in poverty must not be excluded from the opportunity to benefit" from a charity's activities. Under this rule, the Radlett Lawn Tennis and Squash Club, which charges £339 a year for full adult membership, was told by the commission it must do more for those who cannot afford the fees.

An obvious way to keep charitable status, then, would be to offer reduced rates or fund necessary equipment. But should this be necessary, or does the promotion of sport provide a significant public benefit even if not everyone can afford it?

The charity tribunal's hearing on public benefit and independent schools, due to take place in May, could have a major impact. The tribunal might rule that fee-charging schools provide a public benefit without being affordable to all - by producing well-educated individuals who contribute to society more generally, for instance. If it does, the knock-on effect could be that sports charities find it easier to demonstrate public benefit without being affordable to those living in poverty.

Another worry for the commission is that sports charities can create private benefit - by producing athletes that win professional contracts, for example. The commission seems to have taken a more relaxed approach to this than its Scottish counterpart, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, which refused charity status to the Dundee FC in the Community Association because members of its youth team would have been contractually linked to the club. The Charity Commission's consultation document says it regards links to players that become professional as an "incidental benefit", as long as the training is provided to advance amateur sport.

Given the level of complexity in letting sports and games clubs register as charities, the commission is wise to launch a public consultation on the subject. But finding a solution that draws sensible boundaries in such a complicated area seems like an impossible task.

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