Essay: Sport is dead!…Long live sport!

In this essay originally published in the Sport and Recreation Alliance's 'Uncovering the Social Value of Sport' report, Chris Grant, Chief Executive of Sported, sets out the vision for building a World-Class Community Sport System.

Chris Grant, Chief Executive, Sported - Jan 2016At 10.30am on Thursday 5th November 2015, at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in North London, sport for sport’s sake was pronounced dead. Not by a politician; not by a bureaucrat, but by one of our greatest ever athletes.


Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson’s new role as Chair of UK Active – at whose annual summit she made this startling assertion – provides a clue as to what she meant. Indeed, later that same morning, Jennie Price, CEO of Sport England, made the same point by putting up a slide showing a smaller circle, labelled “sport”, within a larger one: “activity”.


Tracey Crouch was there too. She wasn’t able to say much, in advance of the publication of the Government’s new Sports Strategy, but if she had been seized by the desire to storm the stage during Jennie’s presentation – driven, perhaps, by the cognitive dissonance for a life-long Spurs fan of having to behave courteously at the Emirates – she might have drawn a set of even larger circles, surrounding both sport and activity, and labelled “physical health”, “mental health”, “individual development”, “social and community development” and “economic development”. A few weeks later, when it was finally published, the Minister’s foreword to the strategy definitively hammered the final nail into the coffin of sport for sport’s sake as the motivating force of Government policy: “It is these outcomes [the 5 above] that will define who we fund, what we fund and where our priorities lie in future.”


Whether or not this feels like good news is a matter of perspective. Those of us who are deeply in love with our sport or all sport; those who, like me, can’t walk past a primary school rounders match without wanting to join in – or at least stopping to see if the next batter can smack the ball out of the park – might be tempted to see this change of course as a true bereavement


But when we step off the pitch or out of the aerobics studio and take a look around – not as sports lovers but as Citizens – we see that our country is at a crossroads: facing immense challenges which will, over the coming few years, come to define us. Challenges relating to community cohesion; to education and skills; to the load on our National Health Service; to our role and reputation in the world.  “In what way exactly is THAT a reason to be cheerful about this new direction in sports policy?” I hear you ask.


The answer is that there is no single sphere of our national life which can compete with the positive power of sport to make a real difference across this range of critical challenges. Paint a picture of a successful, healthy and happy United Kingdom in 2030, and it will be illuminated by the bright colours of sport. If, however, sport fails to assert itself as one of the best levers we have to achieve success at individual, community and national levels, the future looks much, much bleaker.


Most of the people I meet who are leaders in sport care deeply about the state of their community, their nation and improving young people’s lives. Ultimately, we get to choose how to respond to the new strategy: we can dig our heels in; protest that “we’re already doing it” and hope that the storm blows over. Or we can move forward with confidence and determination, understanding that, between us, we are holding a set of assets which, if deployed well, will deliver far greater benefits than we have squeezed from them up to this point.


Ironically, by shifting the focus away from the narrow pursuit of raw numbers of participants, one of the potential rewards for all of us will be the joy of seeing millions more people fall in love with sport and activity. The Active People Survey is on its way out, and I’m not going to wave a red rag by quoting any specific examples. However, the truth is that even some of the most-played sports have been experienced by a far smaller proportion of the population than would have a good chance of enjoying them if they were presented in the right place at the right time by the right people.


Yes, we have already seen promising innovation from some established sports bodies; the wider leisure and activity industry; the newer charities, such as StreetGames and Access Sport and many of the 3000+ small, hyper-local clubs and groups which make up our membership at Sported. Our challenge and our opportunity now is to connect these bright lights and to take them as the starting point for a re-imagined community sport system. One which finally does away with the limiting assumptions about who plays which sport, and who doesn’t – many of them the remnants of class structures and prejudices which are well beyond their use-by dates, but remain so prevalent in sport that most people don’t even notice they’re there.


So we need to get our own houses in order, but at the same time there is another major challenge to be overcome before sport and activity take their rightful place in our national life.


Prove It!

Chairing events such as the Beyond Sport Summits in London, Glasgow and Philadelphia, as well as conferences on the theme of Sport for Development in the Netherlands and around the UK, I’ve asked many crowded rooms the same two questions:


Is sport an important part of the solution to the wickedest challenges facing individuals and communities? (A sea of hands goes up).


Is sport recognised as such by policy-makers and funders? (almost all the hands go back down).


Of course you could see the DCMS strategy as proof that we’ve overcome this challenge.  Unfortunately, for that argument to stand up, we would need to see policy makers across the whole of Government instinctively turning to sport as a tool to help them achieve their various objectives. Despite the Prime Ministerial introduction and the contributions to the strategy from other Departments, we’re still some way away from such a situation. And it’s not just policy makers who need to be convinced.  Even those tasked with on-the-ground delivery of those outcomes which are closest to the heart of what sport can deliver remain largely oblivious to the powerful work already being done in the communities that they’re focusing on by clubs and groups using sport and activity to engage their target groups.


At the recent “Whole New Ball Game” conference, hosted by Substance, the Director of the Department for Communities and Local Government’s Troubled Families Unit remarked that their local programmes – whose combined budget is not much less than the entire Exchequer contribution to Sport England – had rarely connected with sporting organisations. This despite the fact that most readers of this essay could point to multiple ways in which sport can capture the attention of otherwise “hard-to-reach” individuals; how it can bridge generational divides; how it can build the qualities and skills that help people turn away from destructive behaviours. How – in short – it could and should be one of the most potent tools for a unit such as this.


That same conference – along with conversations taking place in all four home nations, primarily driven by relatively new Third Sector organisations like my own – did confirm that we are finally waking up to the need to be able to back up our claims about the power of sport with robust evidence. At last, we’re following the lead of organisations and networks in education, social care and other sectors by identifying measurement scales and tools that are trusted by ministers and officials.


In England, the Sport for Development Coalition, which includes funders such as Comic Relief and Laureus, pioneering delivery organisations such as Street Games, Access Sport and Greenhouse Sports, and network organisations like Sported and London Youth, has recently developed a shared outcomes and measurement framework. Presented in the form of a “how-to” guide for those wanting to evidence the impact of their work, the framework encompasses not only the direct benefits that sport can deliver for individuals, but also the positive social impact associated with increased community cohesion, employability and so on.


This latter area of social impact was the focus of research commissioned by Sported in 2012, and published under the title “Sportworks”. Looking at the participation of more than 300,000 young people in Sport for Development programmes mainly delivered at hyper-local level by the types of small, volunteer-led clubs and groups which form the bulk of Sported’s membership, the study concluded that the average cost saving to society per young participant amounted to more than £4000 per year. This figure was calculated on the basis of the reduced risk of these young people succumbing to ill-health; getting involved in crime and anti-social behaviour or experiencing other negative outcomes. At Sported, we believe that being able to demonstrate the associated reductions in the burden on the NHS, the criminal justice system and other public services is what will capture the attention and support of stakeholders with access to far larger budgets than those traditionally accessed by sport.


The findings of this research have been underpinned over the last three years by more than 300 organisations, which have used the Sportworks tool to calculate the impact of their own programmes. Groups as disparate as Britwell Youth and Community Project, which put Sportworks data at the heart of a successful Big Lottery bid, or Brentford Football Club Community Trust, which included the Sportworks data associated with its programmes in the successful planning application for the Club’s new stadium, have demonstrated the benefits of a structured approach to proving the value of what they do. In 2016, Sported will introduce “Sportworks 2.0” in the form of an easy-to-use tool, designed to produce reliable evidence of the social return on investment of Sport for Development across the whole of the UK.


Building A World-Class Community Sport System

Sport is definitely not dead. On the contrary, by raising our levels of ambition; by applying evidence-based approaches to successful delivery; by working together, and speaking with a unified voice to educate and engage decision-makers and funders at local and national levels, we could find that we’re entering our prime, and that across the four nations of the UK we are capable of building a Community Sport System that becomes the envy of the world.


In Olympic and Paralympic year, we can be encouraged by the fact that the top of our sporting pyramid has already undergone a similar transformation. Team GB won one solitary Gold Medal in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, and finished 36th in the medals table. Just 12 years later, in Beijing, we took 19 Golds and ranked 4th.


So how was this achieved? Many of the answers are in the list two paragraphs above this one (heightened ambition; evidence-based approaches etc.). What has underpinned and sustained the turnaround has been a powerful change of attitude and behaviour amongst those running the performance programmes.  Most of them now display an unflinching determination to recognise what doesn’t work and change it; a remarkable willingness to share the secrets of success across sports, and a distinct lack of ego when it comes to letting go of territory or resources if the job can be done better elsewhere.  When some of the principles underpinning this success were first introduced, many of them were resisted. However, they are now accepted as normal and, who knows, they may carry us to becoming, in Rio, the first ever Nation to match its Paralympic and Olympic “Home Games” performance four years down the line.


Maybe, by 2020, the rest of the world will have caught up with our performance programmes. However, if we’re prepared to raise our game in community sport, any disappointment in Tokyo will feel like an irrelevance in the context of the emergence of the UK as a nation which fully understands and harnesses the power of sport to enhance the lives of individuals and communities.


Let’s do it!


To read the other essays published in the Sport and Recreation Alliance’s ‘Uncovering the Social Value of Sport’ report, please click here.