10 Problems & Solutions for the Grassroots Sports Industry

Since launching OpenPlay, a marketing platform for sports facilities, I have had the opportunity to meet an enormous range of stakeholders in the grassroots sports industry.

Examples include school lettings officers, sports coaches, council sports development officers, sports bodies, fitness software providers, leisure consultants, MPs and local community groups. I'm not sure there is a comparable industry out there with such an eclectic mix of people.

But 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 some positive news in terms of increased 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

The Problem

This is probably the most concerning aspect. Many 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 according to Deloitte, 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 with them, local authorities, schools and universities who control the vast majority of sports facilities in the UK. Most seem intent on maintaining the statusquo rather than using technology to breakdown the current information barriers. The result is a lack of technological progress and stagnant sports participation numbers.

The Solution

A change in mindset is needed across the industry to have a more entrepreneurial outlook. Experiment often, try things, use the technology that is out there and focus more on engaging people looking to get active rather than throwing money purely at facilities and expecting increases in numbers. Grassroots sport is antiquated, why not bring in some fresh-thinking by involving young er people in senior 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 by bringing  fresh ideas and thinking, which they currently lack internally.

2. Huge gap between the private and public sector

The Problem

As a private sector provider I've discovered 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 typically 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, 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 being in the hands of councils, schools and sports bodies. 

The Solution - More unified thinking

Bring more SMEs and private organisations into public sector sports projects rather than current methods where sports bodies and local authorities tend to try and carry out technological projects themselves. Historical execution of digital projects has been sub-standard and this can only be attributable to a lack of digital expertise and understanding, given the large amount of sums thrown at it. Working with tech startups and organisations will help bridge that gap as they live and breath the technology available and know best how to apply it.

3. Barriers for SMEs to innovate in the grassroots sector

The Problem

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, reduction of unnecessary wastage and faster decision making processes. Therefore more incentives are needed for sports bodies and local authorities to engage with SMEs. Whether these are through 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.

4. Not enough incentives for schools for community lettings

Revenue is obviously the main driver for schools and other clubs to hire their facilities to the community when not being used. 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.

The Solution - Stronger reasons for community lettings

There should be 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 reach 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.

5. Sports bodies are not focusing enough on grassroots

The Problem

Sports bodies who set the tone in grassroots sports, typically favour elite sports performance over grassroots. Presumably this is because any successes are splashed across the newspapers and raise their brand images. Nowhere is this more apparent than in football and tennis which have both seen falling participation numbers from 2012 to 2013. There seems to be a broader focus on commercial partnerships and elite sport and far less consideration towards grassroots, mainly because it isn't seen as lucrative or headline grabbing. 

The Solution

Since we have historically under-performed as a nation at most sports, greater funding allocations and promotion need to be channelled to grassroots. Whilst elite sporting success is extremely important to encourage community take up, money could be better spent on local facilities and engagement activities.

The best example is the £105 million St George's Park complex in Staffordshire designed to revolutionise English football. Judging by the lack of success of the English national team, there doesn't seem to be much of an ROI thus far? Wouldn't spending £10 million on perfectly suitable facilities and giving £95 million to convert approximately 1,000 football pitches to synthetic 3g have been a much better investment? If you have an average of 500 people using a synthetic pitch per week, that could be an extra 500,000 people given access to a 3g pitch, roughly 1/4 of people who play football. Furthermore those pitches could be used for other sports such as hockey, lacrosse, touch rugby and general fitness training. 

6. There are not enough floodlit synthetic pitches

The Problem

This relates to the previous point about investing in more artificial pitches. OpenPlay receives so many enquiries for synthetic pitches, particularly on Monday to Friday evenings after work. In fact slots can even sell out years in advance in parts of Central London, there is that much demand. The problem is that there is a huge lack of quality, synthetic pitches, ideally with floodlights, that can be used during evenings throughout the winter. Our own data tells us this and it is particularly relevant in urban centres.

The Solution

This is pretty self-explanatory. There should be a focus on building more synthetic pitches, particularly those that are multi-use, have a 3g surface and are floodlit. The most important factors to consider are implementation costs, ease (and costs) of maintenance and location. Within the London Borough of Southwark alone there are over 60 concrete multi-use games areas in schools. If more of these were developed into synthetic pitches, it could drastically help encourage more physical activity. The surface would be gentler to the children using them during the day and increase their commercial value in the evenings, thus making it win-win for everyone.

7. Prices are too high and there is no transparency

The Problem

Pricing of sports facilities is often arbitrary with little transparency or justifications of any costs and often a lack of value for money compared to the facilities on offer. In fact it can work both ways with some school or community sites probably not charging enough. Either way there is no.consistency across the board and high prices are a barrier to participation for the mass market. Often smaller, even charitable organisations are priced out of booking facilities, as they compete for slots with commercial organisations who are willing to pay more, pay on time and are reliable. The problem is that what they offer is also out of the price reach of the mass market and aimed at more affluent city types. 

The Solution

There need to be be more incentives for schools and community sites to hire their facilities to non-commercial organisations and peak times. This is particularly the case for disadvantaged groups such as the disabled or economically poor. Perhaps there could be tax incentives to do so such as removal of VAT for community bookings, or greater weighting for funding allocations from sports bodies to venues who can show a balance between community and commercial bookings.  

8. Local residents prevent sports planning applications

The Problem

To become financially sustainable many sports venues need to take difficult planning decisions which come in to conflict with local residents. Typical examples are floodlit applications which can affect neighbour gardens who object due to potential increased noise and traffic from evening bookings and users. These opinions have strong weighting in planning applications with local authorities having an innate fear of being seen as unpopular - it's simply politics. Other examples can be buildings on metropolitan open land to encourage the sustainability of facilities. A recent example is Dulwich Sports Ground in South East London where plans for a nursery during the day when the facility sits idle were met with uproar by local residents.

The Solution

Local authorities and sports bodies have to take a tougher line against residents who complain about the construction of floodlights, new sports facilities or ways to encourage long-term economic sustainability of sports grounds. Whilst their views need to be listened to, local authorities need to be given greater powers to install new pitches, drainage systems and floodlights where local community sports participation is likely to increase. If they don't, more sports planning applications will be rejected and more grounds will go bankrupt and close. 

9. Wastage of public funds by sports bodies in digital projects

The Problem

Historically sports bodies have used the same IT providers and attempted to carry out any digital projects internally. The problem is that these projects are often incredibly expensive, with a lack of commercial awareness and common sense applied. A prime example of this is Sport England's Spogo project which is estimated to have cost £2 million, yet receives fewer hits than OpenPlay! Had they given this money to a handful of SMEs, I strongly argue that they would have produced far better results, for a fraction of the price they spent.

The Solution

Sports bodies need to think local and long-term when carrying out digital projects. Any successful sports participation projects must focus on building local communities or they will fail. Simply throwing considerable public funds at marketing non-user friendly technology will not build these communities. The best use of funds would be to work with small, private organisations who can attract the best staff, innovate and maximise the efficiency of resources. As the main influence in the sports industry, Sport England's role is to set the tone for the sports bodies and stakeholders. They need to shift their own approach before any sports body will take notice.

10. Not enough support for community groups taking over sports facilities

The Problem

With budget cuts rife across local authorities, an ever increasing trend is the transfer of sports assets into local community hands. The principle goal is to save money. The main problem is that these community groups often lack the financial resources needed to take on responsibility of managing them. They also don't want to take on the risk, particularly the responsibility for paying leases, which could put them in a difficult position in the event of a default. 

There are numerous examples of this particular stumbling block. An excellent recent case study is the Lambeth Cooperative Parks Programme. Lambeth Council is looking to offload as many of its parks and playing fields as possible to local groups and communities in the light of huge budget cuts. They are faced with a 45% cut in their parks budget over the next five years. The problem is that community groups are discouraged by the risks they could face by taking on responsibility. This is where Sport England or the GLA should step in to provide financial reassurance - remember when the UK government bailed out the banks?

The Solution

Sport England and other sports bodies have considerable financial resources and should act as guarantors to help with the transfer of assets away from local authorities. That way it helps reassure local community groups who are often volunteers, whilst catalysing the transfer of assets into community hands. Whether by guaranteeing the lease in the event of a failure to pay it, or offering a loan when a group first takes over a facility, they need to take action to facilitate that process to prevent more facilities from falling into disrepair.

By Sam Parton

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

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