Is our sport upside down? Should we focus our resources on the grassroots?

Have we got our sporting priorities wrong?

I was honoured to be a member of a panel, comprising of Professor Diane Coyle, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thomson and Will Watt, at the Pro-Bono Economics annual lecture delivered by Simon Kuper on Monday evening. Simon argued strongly and persuasively that our obsession in the UK with elite sport such as the England football team, the Premier League and the Olympics means we are not devoting sufficient resources to sport at the grassroots level.

Simon quoted research by YouGov commissioned by Pro-Bono Economics which found that only 4% of the population backed UK Sport’s funding strategy for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which puts the emphasis on “more medals and medalists to inspire the nation”. By contrast, 18% of respondents said they would like to see Government funding directed into more community sports centres and making entrance fees more affordable; 14% the reinstatement of school and public playing fields; and a further 14% support for local grassroots sports and fitness initiatives.

Should we divert money from elite sports to increasing physical activity across the population?

The research found that 7% of people had been inspired by the Olympics to participate in sport and Simon argued that this was an inadequate stimulus, although it is over three million people according to Will. Simon’s view, convincingly supported by data and anecdote, was that we need to build more facilities to improve the health of the nation. So, with public funding limited, this means we need to re-allocate money from elite sports to grassroots.

A logical conclusion….

Simon’s logic seems very compelling: use our limited resources to engage as many people as possible in sport, improve the health of the nation and reduce the burden on the NHS. The money currently earmarked for the Olympics would go on building new facilities around the UK, targeted primarily at communities with limited resources and poor provision of facilities..

…but is it the only option?

Our panel discussion agreed with the need to boost participation in sport, however, we also identified the positive role elite sport can play in society. Improving physical well-being is an important element, but there is scope to do more to help build communities, to improve overall health, not just physical, and to strengthen economic opportunity.

This view fits very much with both my personal, as a watcher, participant and coach, and professional experience. In the latter case, through EY’s work with the Premier League, Rugby World Cup and the NFL, we have identified a positive symbiotic relationship between elite and grassroots sport. The inspiration that elite sports can provide is important and in many cases, sport can be the means to access groups in society that are generally hard to reach.

Grassroots sport is also not just about providing facilities. Driving on-going participation requires that the activity creates enthusiasm and offers the opportunity to achieve. Coaching is therefore a critical element. Schemes such as Premier League 4 Sport and Premier League School Sports are good examples of how elite knowledge can be delivered into schools.

The drive to increase participation should not just focus on the major team sports. Fitness, gym based activity, swimming, cycling and dance should all be part of the drive to widen participation. A flexible and inclusive approach is essential.

It is time to be more ambitious…

As our discussion made clear, the return on investment in community sport is significant, with benefit to cost ratios that exceed many other uses of public and private funds. We should therefore be aiming for more resources for sporting provision. Rather than debating how we might need to reallocate our existing resources, we should develop and present the case for more funding. Elite and grassroots sport should be working together to ensure sport is funded in line with the benefits it delivers. Will suggested a “sugar tax” as a funding option, I thought a share of the income tax raised from sports people might be another option. We know from previous EY work that Premier League footballers alone  were paid £891 million in 2013/14. Whatever the means, the priority is to make the case.

…and put schools at the centre of sport.

Simon described the role of community clubs in team sports in the Netherlands and I saw a similar situation when I took my sons to the Gothia Cup in Gothenburg. We didn’t discuss the practicalities at our debate, but the UK is different in current provision and any approach must reflect this. In my view we should put schools at the centre of our efforts to increase participation in sport. Income levels and location are key influences on participation and schools provide the most direct means to identify and adjust for these challenges. With teachers and coaches linked to schools, this route also offers the best way to ensure facilities and coaching are matched efficiently.


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