Participation isn’t Sport

There is an odd split personality relationship that this country has with Sport. We combine the need for elite sporting performance alongside a need for a growth in participation and have decided to task the organizations that are set specific sporting goals with driving participation figures.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the government, which sets these parameters, recognizes just how crazy this is. UK Sport has been established to look at the elite sports program and Sport England is responsible for growing the number of participants who are enjoying ‘sport’. The Government is therefore consciously recognizing the key differences between these two goals.

Unfortunately, when it gets to the national governing bodies there is a demand that they both improve the performance of the high-level performance teams whilst boosting engagement with the wider audience.

When it comes to funding we should take a step back and consider just what our objectives are.

The success of Team GB or the national countries at international events can, and does, have an impact on levels of participation. Creating a halo effect that inspires people is an important element of sport and it’s a necessary component of driving people to embrace the positive elements of exercise. Whilst there has been a slight dip in participation in the last Olympic Cycle we now have 15.8m active participants — which is up 1.7m from 2005. Whilst there are multiple causes for this there is no doubt some correlation, if not causation, between the success we have seen at the top end of sport and people generally being more active.

Sport though is about competition. Participation is about exercise. These are two very different drivers. The latter is about health and wellness the former is very likely to end up with athletes that are in many ways unhealthy as they drive themselves towards success — pushing themselves physically and mentally to a point that most would likely consider extreme.

It creates a major complication for the bodies tasked with improving both ends of the spectrum as it requires two very different ways of thinking and a real split in resources.

At the top end, it’s about recruitment of top level talent, finding experts to deliver the very best in coaching, nutrition sports science, and data analytics as well as finding the best way to peak at the right events to secure funding. This often means a dedication to driving media attention, building profile, securing sponsorship deals and contra supply packages. There is a near total dedication required to this.

For example, I sat next to an Olympic Silver Medallist at an event who explained she was enjoying the food and wine at the event as it was her one week that year of no training or dietary planning and she could relax completely. That is not a level of consistency we can expect elsewhere. The funding body that helped her compete no doubt was delighted to see this, but also it would have been an expectation.

The flip is the need to build a volume audience. This is about a classic consumer funnel of awareness, familiarity, consideration, purchase (trial) and then loyalty. The very things that make top level organizations succeed are likely to drive many people away from participation. The key here is more about making things approachable, scalable to your skills and abilities, providing enough facilities, keeping it engaging and cheap enough for a mass audience.

There are some interesting business models around participation sport that aren’t as narrow as the things that get done at the top end — but again that requires a different set of skills to manage and build revenues.

Building a marketing team, managing venues, building local government support, putting in place a significant volunteer operation and then looking to build support revenues is a real drain on resources, requires intense focus and requires a very different vision to that of building a team of winners and champions.

It partly comes down to deciding just what it is our country is looking to achieve and then deciding where that fits best. It could well be argued that participation sport, as a function of health and wellness should be within the remit of the Department of Health.

Unfortunately, the NHS and the Dept. of Health are more focussed on Disease Control than building wellness and overall national health and probably couldn’t cope with delivering the remit in its current structure. This is not a knock on the NHS but more a consideration of their own stresses and budgetary constraints.

The DDCMS is better suited to the high-end Sports delivery and its UK Sport entity has done an admirable job given its position within the overall government hierarchy. No doubt if this was its entire focus performance would be even better.

What it means though is that every now and then we should consider the job we are asking our Governing Bodies to deliver on both ends of the spectrum and understand it is a task that most private or public bodies would shirk or decry as entirely unreasonable. They can do better but when you realize the conundrum they have been set perspective is a little easier to come by.