Evolving pandemic protocols testing the sustainability of community sports organizations

Gymnastics equipment at TRYumph Gymnastics. (File photo)

By Kieran Heffernan

As pandemic restrictions and government funding programs continue to evolve, Ottawa community sports organizations are rushing to keep up.

For the Ottawa Shooting Stars Basketball Club, the main challenge has been with rental facilities. Usually, 95 per cent of its programs are run out of school gymnasiums. Schools typically offer cheap rates, but they haven’t been open for rent since the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed Canada in March.

The club has had to resort to renting private courts, which comes with a steep cost, said Shooting Stars president Derek Firth.

“On average, our school gym times cost between $15 an hour to $20 an hour. And now for private facilities, we’re paying between $75 an hour and $110 an hour,” Firth said.

In light of this, the club has had to more than double the cost of its programs.

“So what (athletes are) getting for twice the price this year is not even close to the amount of gym time and training and games that we would have under normal conditions,” Firth said.

Right now, only the Shooting Stars’ tier one competitive teams are consistently training together, each getting two one-hour practice sessions a week (although Firth said it’s more like 50 minutes after going through the necessary COVID-19 safety protocols). Normally, there would be two 90-minute practices per week, plus games and tournaments. Most tier two teams and all house league teams have not been able to practice, simply due to the lack of available facilities.

There also hasn’t been much of a drop off in interest in playing, Firth said, with the Shooting Stars only observing a five to 10 per cent dip in registrations.

Of course, the cost increase of participating is also a significant barrier for many athletes who may have already struggled to afford competitive sports programs.  

“We have a policy that we’ll never turn a kid away because lack of finances,” Firth said. This has continued even through the pandemic. “Our club has essentially been subsidizing (players who aren’t able to afford the programming), so we’re taking a big financial hit to operate this year, and we’re operating our programming at a loss.”

Firth said the only way he sees the current situation changing is if schools open up gym permits, but even if that were the case, challenges remain for clubs, like the Shooting Stars, that rely on renting gym space.

“Even before the pandemic, accessibility to facilities for indoor sports, especially for basketball in Ottawa, has been a major issue that we’ve been trying to address.”

Sports clubs that own facilities have faced their own difficulties as well.

TRYumph Gymnastics, which is located in Gloucester, has struggled dealing with rapidly fluctuating building capacity limits in its attempt to stay open.

“Initially (the provincial government) said no recreational gymnastics – just completely arbitrary. Then they come back and limit to 10 (people in a room). And then the next week, they say, okay, you can put a barrier down the middle. It’s constantly evolving,” said Paul ApSimon, the club’s co-founder.

TRYumph’s nearly 10,000 square foot main room could certainly accommodate more than 10 people who are physical distancing, but in order to abide by government regulations, they’ve installed a shower curtain-like vapour barrier. It divides the gym in half, allowing for double the number of people to be in the space.

TRYumph has also extended its hours to accommodate more athletes. Still, it’s only hosting about 30 per cent of the gymnasts it normally does, going from having about 470 active members to about 130.

Another challenge has been keeping up with evolving government assistance programs.

“It’s very confusing. It’s very hard to keep up with the various programs. Of course, we love the support, we would never have survived without it,” ApSimon said.

The club has benefitted from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which is in its third variation, as well as rent support (which ApSimon said was difficult to attain because of the need to rely on their landlord to apply).

Now, TRYumph is waiting for new support programs to come out, and there’s a lot on the line for the club. When it opened in 2018, co-founder Alina Florea guaranteed its lease using her own house.

“She felt so strongly with the program that she said, ‘Okay, I’ll guarantee my personal assets to this club.’ And so, we would have a lot to lose should that project not function,” ApSimon said.

He also said he believes that with the government’s support, TRYumph will survive. Still, the situation has been emotional.

“For me, I’m a school teacher, I coach the Canadian fencing team, I’ve got other things going on,” ApSimon said. “This is just one of my projects, but for Alina, TRYumph is her life. She really feels the emotional roller coaster of the pandemic.”

READ MORE: Ottawa MMA gyms facing unique fight in reopening amid COVID-19

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