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Faith and Sport

Sport and trickledown

16th December 2014

Peter is a 16 year old and lives on a council estate in the West Midlands. He enjoyed sport at his school - he was a talented footballer, and enjoyed playing cricket when the local county ran a few sessions.

But then he left and the sport stopped. The most likely outcome for him is that he will come to represent the 73% of people in the lowest socio-economic groups, the 45% of 16-25 year olds and the 68% of those in the West Midlands who, according to the latest Sport England Active People Survey, aren't participating in sport at for at least 30 minutes a week.

If you had believed the copious rhetoric of the last decade, the Peter of ten years ago should have been looking forward to benefitting from a golden era in British sport. But while there has been a small increase in overall participation across England, none of the above categories (lower socio-economic groups and young people) have experienced any statistically significant increase. Of course, social and cultural changes have made a difference – making it far harder to keep people interested in sport – but most people accept that facilities, and therefore funding, have a role to play in supporting participation.

In 2004/05 the Premier League had nearly £0.6billion in revenue (rising to £3billion in 2013-14), fulfilling the promise in 1992, made when it was established, that it would become the most watched league in the world. Yet despite this, it does not appear to have honoured promises to invest 5% of this revenue in the grassroots game. The league disputes this but, whatever the exact figures, the initial rationale for establishing the league in the early 90’s that it would turn the England team into world-beaters has not been fulfilled and there is currently a funding crisis in grassroots football.

Peter supports his local Premier League team. He went once when a cousin took him, but with the average price of tickets increasing by nearly 1000% since 1992 he has not been able to go since. The thought of passing some of the benefits to supporters from the astronomical revenues does not seem to feature in most club boardrooms or a regulator (the Football Association) apparently intimidated by the power of the most powerful league in the world, and its insatiable desire for never-ending growth.

Of course, it’s not just a football thing. When England won the Ashes in 2005 in one of the most exciting series in history, Peter was one of the millions who watched on terrestrial television and was inspired to play with friends in a local park. The next year’s international cricket rights were sold to pay-per-view television with the promise that funds would be injected into grassroots cricket. National once a week participation rates for cricket actually decreased slightly between 2005-2013, in spite of considerable public funding channelled by Sport England through the England and Wales Cricket Board. Peter was never inspired by cricket on television again, and the England and Wales Cricket Board’s suggestions of extensive grassroots investment never really materialised.

Football and cricket may be higher profile examples of sports where huge revenues do not readily translate to benefits felt at a grassroots level, but they are certainly not the only ones.

Peter was seven when London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games in 2005 and much of the rhetoric used to justify the billions of pounds of public funds spent on the games was that it would 'inspire a generation' with regard to sport. While some sports, like athletics, saw a small increase in participation over this period, others, like swimming, saw a disappointing decrease.

Those within sports policy debate the exact reasons this may have happened, but there is a general consensus that the fact that one playing field being sold off each week since 2010-2013 has not helped. These figures, along with the unconvincing overall participation statistics, beg the question: why in a multi-billion pound industry does comparatively little trickle down to impact grassroots sport?

There are comparatively few people in the world of economics who now advance trickle-down theory. That’s because we know that wealth doesn’t trickle so much as pool – in tax havens, property investments and so on. So how has the trickle-down theory managed to survive in sport? In football, the wealth pools in player wages which can often reach 100+% of clubs turnover. In cricket, it pools in the subsidies to counties that – cash strapped in their own right – channel little to the grassroots. But in all sports, being thought to focus on the grassroots shores up the legitimacy of administrative bodies or big leagues – in other words, it’s a useful fiction.

This matters for two related reasons. Firstly, sport is a common good or joy; or in more theological terms the 'liturgical celebration of our creaturely contingency' as theologian Lincoln Harvey puts it. Sport represents the 'unnecessary-but-meaningful' aspect of life which God has been pleased to bless his creation with, enabling us to enjoy our 'substantial integrity as playful creatures' - in much the same way a parent may enjoy watching a child play with other children from a distance in a playground. The fact that Peter likes sport but has limited opportunity to play arguably curtails his God-shaped created-ness.

Secondly, the fact that this is true for Peter and less so for people in higher socio-economic groups also makes it an issue of social justice. The number of people in managerial or professional roles participating in sport (x4 30mins in a month) has increased since 2005 to 41% compared to those in lower supervisory roles or unemployed where the figure flat lined at 27%. Four in ten of team-GB's 2012 medal winners were educated privately (compared to just 7% of the population) where sporting facilities do not rely on the trickle-down effect and consequently are significantly better.

This raises further questions around the purpose of politics in general. Beyond the tasks of fighting the negatives of injustice and inequality, for example, it exists to create the positive conditions in which all can flourish, not just those who were fortunate enough to be born in certain places to certain people. Sport, along with art, can form part of this vision, which is why the participation (and accessible spectating) agenda is important and not simply something for ‘after the most important things’ as often appears to be the case in politcs.

In an age of public austerity where cutting sport facilities is often seen as an easy way local authorities can make savings, and a sporting industry which still comparatively lucrative, questions need to be asked about the amount and effectiveness of redistribution down the ladder. This may require changing societal attitudes towards sport and the community: in much of Europe larger clubs are often called ‘associations’ where many sports come under the umbrella of one club and funds spread more equitably. Societal attitudes are more socially focused around participation and pride within these clubs, however which would require a significant social shift in the UK. Perhaps this is what is required though, as the current strategy to raise participation does not appear to be working.

Sam Tomlin is currently training as a Salvation Army officer in London. He is a former policy researcher at Sports Think Tank and is the co-author of the 2012 Theos/Sports Think Tank report, Give Us Our Ball Back - Reclaiming Sport for the Common Good and CentreForums’ report, It’s All in the Game

Image by Howard Lake from flickr.com under the Creative Commons Licence