COMMENT: Bristol Sport's commitment is welcome and encouraging - but we should not become dependent on Steve Lansdown's generosity
SOME of you will have known about Dino Zamparelli for a while, others will have heard of him for the first time in the last few days, and others again will still have no idea who he is.
But the Bristol driver recently became the latest cog in Steve Lansdown’s Bristol Sport Ltd machine, joining Bristol City and Bristol Rugby as sporting entities being funded by Lansdown.
Backing an individual such as Zamparelli, who will compete in this year’s GP3 Series (two rungs below Formula One on the motorsport ladder), is a departure from Lansdown’s previous involvement in sport but hints at an exciting new direction for sport in Bristol.
In fact, in the past few months, sport in Bristol has received several encouraging pick-me-ups.
Bristol Rovers took a significant step toward building their new stadium, as well as appointing a manager who took them out of the League Two relegation zone, while City announced a feasible and well-received plan to redevelop Ashton Gate if their bid to move to Ashton Vale fails. They also installed a new boss who oversaw an improvement in their on-field fortunes, even if they remain two points away from safety in the Championship.
Bristol Rugby, meanwhile, moved back into the all-important top four in their version of the Championship, before appointing Andy Robinson – the former England and Scotland head coach – as director of rugby. He started work on Friday and was present as his new side produced a stunning performance to beat Bedford yesterday.
The rugby club also have a clearer idea of where they will be playing in the future, after confirming they will move in with City, regardless of whether the Ashton Vale plan goes ahead.
There is still plenty to do, of course, but there are clear indications that Bristol may be about to wake up and climb out of its sporting rut.
Bristol Sport have not revealed the extent of their backing for Zamparelli, although it is generally considered to cost upwards of £200,000 per GP3 season to finance a driver.
Lansdown’s approach to spending on sport via his Bristol Sport vehicle is in stark contrast to the signs many people read into his decision to move to Guernsey for tax reasons three years ago.
There was plenty of discussion at the time as to whether that would signal a slowing-down of Lansdown’s involvement in City and therefore in local sport – but the reality has been quite the opposite.
And Martin Griffiths, the chairman of Bristol Sport, has stressed that the decision to back Zamparelli will not impact on the overall financial commitment to City, just as the involvement in City will not affect how much is put into the rugby club.
“This idea that these investments are somehow mutually exclusive and that there’s a finite pot that will be divvied out is just not the case,” said Griffiths.
“This is purely an opportunity-by-opportunity basis, and if the opportunity stacks up, if it makes sense, if we believe we are backing real talent and real commitment – and the two absolutely have to go together – then that’s the opportunity for us to pursue.
“It’s not a case of starting the year with an amount of money and when it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s about what opportunity unfolds as the year goes by.”
This is all encouraging news – yet the aim in all facets of Bristol Sport’s involvement in the local sporting scene must be for their interests to eventually become self-sustainable. City’s losses and debts have been well documented; getting Bristol Rugby back into the Aviva Premiership will not come cheaply; while the further up the motorsport ladder Zamparelli goes, the more expensive it will become for him to compete, albeit while attracting more sponsors and backers.
Lansdown’s generosity and investment is refreshing – and he should be congratulated for going beyond the call of duty in trying to make Bristol a city of sporting excellence, rather than the backwater many believe it has become.
But, the wider his sporting portfolio grows, the more important it becomes that some of his interests – if not all – start to recoup the money he has invested. Because Bristol cannot afford to become a city where the majority of the sporting landscape is not only shaped and controlled by one man but comes to depend on his generosity.