Where is the Unity in Grass-Roots Sport? (Part 1)

Where is the Unity in Grass-Roots Sport? (Part 1)

Posted: Mon, 14 Jul 2014 15:44

Where is the Unity in Grass-Roots Sport? (Part 1)

Since launching OpenPlay, a platform that connects sports facilities to their users, I have had the opportunity to meet an enormous range of stakeholders in the grassroots sports industry. Examples include school lettings officers, sports coaches, sports development officers, sports bodies, fitness software providers, leisure consultants, MPs and local community groups. I'm not sure there is a comparable industry with such an eclectic mix of stakeholders.

However, one over-arching thing has struck me. There is a complete lack of unity in the grassroots sports industry and it is a big problem. On the back of a successful Olympic games, Andy Murray winning Wimbledon and not forgetting millions of pounds invested in facilities and sports bodies, you would expect there to be positive news in relation to sports participation. However Sport England's recent figures showed a shocking 14% fall in people playing football, 9% in tennis and 51,000 drop in young people playing sport (aged 16-25) from December 2012 to 2013.

As someone innovating in this industry, it becomes blindingly obvious what the problems are. Clearly a rethink is needed to help unify the incredibly fragmented nature of the industry with a more joined up approach. Otherwise it is difficult to see how any significant progress in this area can ever be made. So here is a list of the main problems in the grassroots industry, possible explanations and suggested solutions to address them, based around common sense.

1. Lack of innovation & forward thinking at grassroots level: This is probably the most concerning aspect. Most councils, sports bodies and schools are far behind the technological times and not taking full advantage of the huge communication advances brought by technology. Currently only 20% of sports facilities in the UK can be booked online (Sport England 2012) and the industry as a whole was voted 3 out of 10 in terms of its digital experience (FIA). However nationwide smartphone ownership has now reached over 78%, particularly amongst 16-25 years old (87%). Interestingly it is that group who are the main problem demographic for physical inactivity.

Whilst most sports bodies shirk responsibility, the blame for the lack of technological innovation at grassroots level has to fall on their shoulders. The brakes have also been applied by local authorities, schools and universities who control the vast majority of sports facilities in the UK. Most seem intent on maintaining the status quo rather than using technology to breakdown the perennial information barriers. The result is a lack of technological progress and stagnant sports participation numbers.

The Solution

A change in mind-set is needed across the industry to have a more entrepreneurial outlook. Experiment often, try things, use the emerging technology (particularly mobile) and focus more on engaging people looking to get active rather than throwing money purely at facilities and expecting participation increases. Grassroots sport is living in the Stone Age, why not bring in some fresh-thinking by involving younger people in decision making? If you want to target the drop-off (those aged 14-25) why not bring their opinions forward to the top of policy decisions as ultimately they are the future? Working with more entrepreneurs and encouraging innovation would also serve sports bodies well through fresh, feasible ideas and thinking.

2. Disjointed sports provision within local authorities: Local authorities are responsible for a huge share of available sports facilities in the UK. They have a pivotal role in the implementation of any centrally created sports participation strategies. However departments responsible for sports provision within local authorities are disjointed. From a local authority perspective the public get active in three areas; leisure centres, parks and schools. Responsibility however, for these almost always falls in three separate local authority departments; leisure, parks and children/education services. These departments are seldom working together and worse even competing against each other for budgets! This is completely nonsensical, as they should share the same collective goals, 1. Increase local physical activity 2. Get assets financially self-sustainable.


Local authorities have to join up their internal departments in order to execute their sports strategies. Local authority budget cuts represent an opportunity for this happen with cost savings the main driver to amalgamate them. Not only will this allow far greater operational efficiency it will help alleviate public confusion as to what is available and where. Whether a member of the public goes to a leisure centre, park or school to get active is irrelevant, the point is to get them active. An obvious solution is to merge parks and school sports provision under the leisure department.

3. Huge gap between the private and public sector: As a private sector provider we've seen that there is an innate wariness amongst the public sector of private, for-profit organisations. This is shown by very few grants or funding pools made available to private groups. They're almost all reserved for not-for-profit or social entities. I would argue that private organisations, particularly SMEs, are most likely to innovate, take risks, attract the best talent and use resources efficiently. Furthermore if you look closely, often the best examples of increasing sports participation are when facilities are either placed in the hands of local community groups or private businesses rather than under council or school control management.

The Solution – More unified thinking

Bring more SMEs and private organisations into public sector sports projects rather than conventional methods where sports bodies and local authorities try and carry out such projects themselves. Whether an organisation is for-profit or not should be irrelevant as long as the goal is to get more people active in the long-term. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the historical execution of digital projects that for the main have been sub-standard and expensive. You only have to look at Sport England's £2 million Spogo project which arguably could have been achieved for a fraction of the budget given to it. Over spending and poor execution on these can only be attributable to a lack of digital expertise and understanding. Working with tech startups and organisations will help bridge that gap as they live and breathe the technology available and know best how to apply it.

4. Barriers for SMEs to innovate in the grassroots sector: Having applied for a public sector tender and innovation grant, I was astonished by the amount of red tape and bureaucracy involved. Secondly the eligibility criteria for public sports sector contracts leans towards larger, established businesses and agencies who have been working with sports bodies for several years. SME applicants are marked down due to the size of their teams and financial situations, which shouldn't really be part of any criteria. Selection should be more about the ability to execute. In fact you rarely need large teams to execute digital projects – Instagram had 13 employees before being sold to Facebook for $1 billion, WhatsApp a team of less than 50 before selling for $19 billion! Furthermore these laborious application processes contradict the government's supposed agenda to position themselves as the party for small businesses. Current arduous bureaucracy and convoluted practices in the grassroots sector suggest the exact opposite.

Solution – More incentives for SMEs

Startups and small companies by nature must constantly innovate to survive. They also need to minimise their overheads and stretch any capital as far as possible. The result is a far more efficient use of resources and reduction of unnecessary wastage and faster decision-making process. Therefore more incentives need to be given to sports bodies and local authorities to engage with SMEs. Whether these are extra financial assistance, reduction in taxes or more streamlined tendering processes for SMEs, the government has to put more emphasis on using SMEs in grassroots sport to encourage much needed change.

5. Not enough incentives for schools for community lettings: Schools can be split into private and state schools and both have different agendas when sharing their sports facilities with local communities. For state schools revenue is obviously the main driver for opening up their facilities to the public. It also helps raise the perception of school and clubs in their local communities, which can be important for planning permission and funding applications. However a focus on just money can be detrimental. Schools and community sites tend to prefer long-term, regular bookings, particularly with larger commercial organisations where they are usually guaranteed higher income when compared to local community bookings. The problem is that the prices set by commercial organisations are often out of reach of the mass market and only suit more affluent demographics.

Private schools are different as there is less financial need to rent out their facilities, yet they have some of the best sports facilities available. Most realise they probably ought to share their sports assets, but without the financial incentives there is a tendency to do so when is convenient to them. There is no current legislation or enforcement for them to do so.

The Solution – Stronger reasons for community lettings

There should be better incentives for schools and clubs to take community lettings. For schools these could include additional weighting in Ofsted inspections or tax incentives for schools who achieve a certain level of community bookings within a calendar year. Sport England could even prioritise their funding for clubs and schools who offer equal amounts of community bookings or a greater weighting on them. OpenPlay certainly helps facilitate community, pay and play bookings but further help is needed at government level. Much of the best sports facilities in the UK lie in schools and universities. For private schools that want to maintain a charity status, enforcing a certain a number of community lettings per year to keep the status seems an obvious solution to this problem. Otherwise are they really a charity?

This is Part One of a two-part Blog.

By Sam Parton

Sam is co-founder of OpenPlay, which is helps you find and book London sports facilities.

Tags: Sport, Sport and Development, community sport, school sport, sport england


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