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Faith and Sport

Sporting futures

22nd December 2014

I have always been struck that the challenges faced by sport and other voluntary organisations like churches are similar: they must both make their ‘offer’ in an increasingly consumerist culture.

On the one hand, this presents profound challenges – for instance, sports clubs, like religious organisations, tend to lose people in their teens (although sport doesn’t hang on to quite as many over 60s as the Church). We are increasingly designing activity out of our lives and becoming ever more sedentary. Sitting is the enemy, and inactivity has become a big killer. There is investment going into sport and recreation through the National Lottery and professional leagues but the impacts of austerity in local government (where the majority of spending on leisure still happens in government) will be felt in 2016/17, and they will be devastating in many parts of the country. The private gym sector continues to play a role – but it is only a part of the story. Declining services and lessaffordable space to play will make it harder in the poorest parts of the country to find a ‘place to play.’ Inequality in opportunity is increasingly leading to inequality in health and morbidity.

On the other hand, it’s not a wholly bleak picture. Over the last few years the world of sport has woken up to social and cultural change, and has tried to become much more ‘insight driven’, looking to understand its ‘customers’ and potential new customers, to use business parlance. It’s true that the Olympic golden glow generally didn’t raise levels of participation in sport and physical activity, which remain stubbornly low, but there are still over 150,000 voluntary sports clubs across the country. Again, like the churches, there is at least a reasonably solid base on which to work.

The Future Foundation has done some work for the Sport and Recreation Alliance, for which I serve as Chair, helping us to understand how changes in culture are affecting how and why people participate – and don’t participate – in sport. There isn’t room to run through all the impacts identified in the report but some of the main ones can be summarised. I am sure that some of the themes will be recognised by many who have reflected on the challenges faced by churches and other religious communities. Some of these factors might be incorporated easily into existing structures without damaging them – others are more challenging. 

Team sport v informal individualism. As with other aspects of life sport has always had a pride in the sense of social capital generated by the ideals of teams and clubs. Indeed the SRA research suggested belonging to a club was the equivalent of a £3500 pay rise for an individual in terms of increased wellbeing. But time constraints, geography and work life balance mean that volunteering and participation in sports clubs, which require regular commitment to a fixed time for training & fixtures, is getting harder. That’s why we are seeing the growth of individual sports and pursuits which can be fixed around the individual or groups quickly assembled around a technology – the Middle Aged Man in Lycra out cycling (MAMALS) only informally belongs to the cycling community, rarely joining a club or the British Cycling for example. The growth of running sports for events and even Parkrun – a quick informal club structure – point the way forward for many.

Technologisation of sport and recreation. The increasing thrust of technology into every corner of our lives has impacted sport too – with one example being known as the ‘Quantifiable Self’. Increasingly wearable technology allows the collection of personal data on performance in real time, a possibility previously only dreamt of for anyone but the top paid professionals. The tech also allows you to ‘compete’ against other friends and athletes in real time across the world or by different time zones. Instead of fearing the iPhone and smartwatch we can embrace it. You can even play Zombies – being chased by zombies on your iPhone if you don’t physically run quickly enough! There will be more of this to come!

The ‘Aldi-isation’ of sport culture. Budget gyms are now popping up everywhere and people are happy to boast about their savings as much as how much things cost. We look for bargains. Technology again allows us to compare prices and gain the best value at all times.

Temporary ownership.  Why buy a bike when there is a Boris bike available – why pay an annual subscript when you can pay by contactless payment as you go? Fewer financial ties mean fewer physical ties – we dip in and out as the mood takes. Joining a team for a whole year will seem increasingly restrictive. We change sport like we change fashions. All very challenging.

Play and Gamification. We know that in the past play was considered niche behaviour, but now it is built into our daily lives. We need to learn how to build this into our activities. The element of reward ‘in-game’ is something of a normal behaviour for the next generation. Sport can offer this but may need to find new ways of rewarding good playing behaviour.

In both sectors – the sporting and the religious – we need to understand how cultural, social and technological change is influencing the way we interact with old institutions. Tempting as it may be to resist, we need to be prepared to at least think of how we can be prepared with an offer that works around chaotic, mobile and uncertain lifestyles. This will inevitably include much more informal, personalised and ad hoc engagement in sports, as it will with expressions of faith. This is not to suggest team sport or collective worship will disappear, but that for many this is no longer a norm that we can take for granted or for many is even desirable. We need to think about MAMALS and work out how we create community / clubs in a new and relevant way.

I am a glass half full person. I see these as opportunities to protect what is best about community sport or expressions of faith but in a new and interactive way. On a final note I fully understand that 1 in 8 UK citizens have never accessed the internet, never mind tweeted, bought an app or used mapmyrun, but the trend in the UK is to a wired internet of everything, which will become unavoidable. 

Andy Reed OBE was the Labour/Co-op Member of Parliament for Loughborough from 1997-2010. He serves on the board of a number of sport bodies and Christian organisations and in 2014 was appointed as Professor of Sports Policy and Development at Liverpool John Moores University.

Image by designmilk from flickr.com under the Creative Commons Licence