As I write this, Sheffield Council is considering whether or not to close the Don Valley Stadium, famous (lately) as the venue in which poster-girl-cum-supreme-being Jessica Ennis trains. (Update: the council have decided to go ahead with the closure). The stadium is being run at a loss and cost the council £700,000 in the last year, with £1.6 million in capital investment due over the next few years. With cuts to everything and council tax rises the hottest of political potatoes (apart from all the others), things are not looking good for this iconic venue, the second largest athletic stadium in the UK, built for the World Student Games at a cost of £29 million pounds.
£29 million pounds? For the World Student Games?
Presumably it’s played host to a multitude of high profile events since then, though.
Actually, no, it hasn’t. Not so iconic after all. It’s basically a place where people can go and train, a little. It’s USP, according to one apologist I heard on the radio, is that members of the public can walk in and train right next to Jessica Ennis. Presumably they need some kind of radioactive shield to prevent being frazzled at the mere sight of the immortal athlete, but still. That’s worth £700,000 per year of anyone’s money, isn’t it?
From a brief rummage through the Don Valley website, it appears there’s a gig every now and then, so at least they’re trying to make it pay, but they’re up against one fundamental problem: athletics just isn’t that popular.
Sure, it was great during the Olympics. We all had fun. The lucky ones got to go and see it live, but most enjoyed the TV coverage, which was better in many ways because they didn’t have the problem of the athletes spending half the time round the other end of the stadium from where they were sitting. In your own living room there’s nowhere to hide.
But how many people since then, or indeed before, have wandered down to Crystal Palace or Don Valley or that place in Gateshead that you sometimes see on TV? Really? How many people have travelled to see their favourite runners and jumpers and throwers compete in indoor events during the long, cold winter we’re finally clawing our way out of? I doubt it’s many, because if there were tens of thousands of us ready to stand in a cold, wet athletics stadium every weekend eating overpriced pies and waving scarves emblazoned with “Mobot” or “The Divine Goddess Jessica”, Don Valley Stadium wouldn’t need £700,000 per year from the good people of Sheffield. Hell, it could probably pay them.
And that’s what it comes down to. It’s estimated that Sheffield Council has to subsidise every single visitor to Don Valley to the tune of £5. I have no idea who came up with this number or whether it’s accurate, but I’ve yet to hear the apologists challenge it, so I’m prepared to let it stand for now. If it’s so important to them, why can’t those visitors fork out the fiver? Why should the people of Sheffield have to pay for this?
“I understand budgets and costs,” said Ennis, “but I think we need to find a way to keep it.” Need, Jessica? Really? Why, when genuinely important services are being cut, should a handful of athletes get a precious dip in the public purse? I know sports leads to fitness and fitness leads to health and health leads to savings on the NHS (and a massive welfare bill for all those unemployed medical professionals, but we’ll ignore that), but it’s not like there were a lot of people even using Don Valley. We’re talking about £700,000 per year for little more than a giant blue plaque saying “Jessica Ennis trained here”. It’s running, for heaven’s sake. Running and jumping and throwing, and “the kids”, who are “the legacy” of London 2012 do not need a £29 million stadium to run and jump and throw in.
And the people of Sheffield, faced with losing 14 libraries and £10.5 million per year from care for the elderly and vulnerable, I bet they can think of better ways to spend that money, too.