The Government's response to sport's plight during the Covid-19 crisis has been labelled deficient by one of the sector's most influential powerbrokers.
Rob Nichol, who heads up the country's most powerful athletes' unions, including the Athletes' Federation and New Zealand Rugby Players' Association, has launched a broadside at government agency Sport New Zealand, accusing them of being too slow to react to the issues caused by the pandemic, incommunicative and lacking transparency.
His words have been echoed by at least two major national sporting organisations, who told the Herald it feels like sport has been left out on a limb despite it being one of the most devastatingly affected sectors.
Nichol's displeasure stems from the fact he feels the Athletes' Federation – an umbrella organisation that represents the players' associations of a number of high-performance sports including hockey and football – should have a seat at the table when discussing the impacts and solutions for sport in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.
"Our engagement with the NSOs has been excellent and we have good contact with High Performance Sport NZ but they're not leading this response. Sport New Zealand is and we've had no consultation with them at all," Nichol said.
Sport leaders including Nichol and Netball NZ CEO Jennie Wyllie spoke this week at Parliament's Epidemic Response committee and outlined their fears for the sector, including the constricting of women's sport competitions and opportunities in a post-Covid world.
Nichol expressed his frustration that he hadn't been consulted by Sport NZ, and National MP Nikki Kaye seized upon this in a blog, saying: "It is also totally unacceptable that the New Zealand Athletes Federation has not been adequately consulted by Sports NZ. Athletes have experienced huge changes to their livelihoods with the challenges of trying to train and dealing with the psychological impact and uncertainty of Covid-19.
"The Government has announced some funding, but $25 million is not enough. Sporting organisations are being hit with a drop in sponsorship, community trust funding and broadcasting revenue. There are also questions about whether the funding is being targeted to the right place."
Peter Miskimmin today told the Herald that while he "absolutely" agreed in principle that the athletes' unions should be a big part of any conversations around the future of sport in New Zealand, he said there were good reasons they weren't consulted around the $25 million relief fund announced this week.
"That's a relief package for clubs and community sports organisations to help counter their revenue and gaming money shortfalls," Miskimmin said. "We worked very swiftly to get that $25m out the door with little to no consultation.
"Clubs were bleeding out and we needed to act quickly."
Miskimmin said because this fund wasn't targeted at professional players or high-performance athletes he did not feel it was necessary to engage Nichol.
"When we're thinking longer term and structures and systems, as we will need to do, then absolutely they are going to be important, but we're not ready for that conversation yet… At this stage it's about getting money to clubs in the blink of an eye to help them survive against their fixed costs."
Nichol said that regardless of whether it is grassroots or professional sport, the athletes need to be involved as it all impacts against the survival of the industry.
"At every level we need to be talking about risk assessment, return to play protocols, health and safety, contract and redundancy issues. The government's response is being led by Sport NZ and the lack of engagement has left us disillusioned and disappointed."
Sport NZ commissioned former NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew to compile a report on the impacts of the pandemic on New Zealand's professional franchises. Auditing firm KPMG has also been engaged to run the rule over sports financial plight.
"We weren't consulted for either report," Nichol said. "We haven't seen them, don't know what is in them, don't know what conclusions have been reached and don't know where the reports have gone. None of the NSOs we've been talking to can answer any of those questions for us either."
Nichol said he and his members were at the coalface working as hard as they could to ensure the sector's survival. He said they could offer invaluable advice to the Government in regards to targeted assistance.
"We're not even talking about money here. It's about where Sport NZ's resources and expertise could be utilised, even if it's just as enablers or using them to break down barriers."
One urgent example, Nichol said, was the Government acting as a go-between between some NSOs who desperately needed broadcast revenue, and broadcast partners who haven't been delivered content.
"I find it galling that the finance minister, who is doing a great job, is lauding the collaboration between business, the Government and the CTU," Nichol said of Grant Robertson.
"He's also the sports minister and I know he loves sport. Yet here we are and his Government agency hasn't reached out to the sports equivalent of the CTU."
Robertson told the Herald this week that his team had been in "constant communications with the major franchises, professional teams and codes" and he understood the pressure the sector was under after everything ground to a halt as the coronavirus spread across the globe.
"My job is to now look ahead over the next year or 18 months as we rebuild society and the economy, what that looks like for sport and recognising that a lot of funding sources are gone; recognising there's a need for more beyond these short term measures," he said.
Nichol claimed that the feedback he had from the NSOs was that they were "underwhelmed" by the Government response to what is shaping as a race for survival for many sports.
Wyllie spoke to the committee about her fears for netball, although the sport has been boosted by the return of the ANZ Premiership – albeit in a moderated, single-venue form – under Level 2.
Another executive at one of New Zealand's high-profile sports spoke off the record but backed up Nichol's assertion, saying: "There's something not quite right going on there."
In response Miskimmin pointed to the $70m-plus in funding that was automatically rolled over for NSOs and regional sports organisations into 2021. As well as that, all the athlete Performance Enhancement Grants were confirmed.
"Again, we didn't consult widely on that because urgency was required to keep the wheels turning," Miskimmin said.
The Sport NZ CEO said a lot of his agency's response from here on in would be dictated to by Thursday's budget.