By Jessica Pinchbeck
In my attempt to be a good sporting parent I encourage my children to both participate in and spectate as many different sports as possible. However in spite of my attempts at diversity when faced with a range of activities or equipment to choose from, nine out of ten times they’ll opt for kicking a football. There appears to be something about football that possesses an unexplainable attraction for my children and many like them. When you pass any school playground at lunchtime it is easy to see that football dominates; rarely do you witness a game of rugby or volleyball being played. So is this obsession with playing football in the playground reflected in the sports participation of the general public?
What do the facts and figures say?
The number of people over 16 in England who play sport at least once a week is on the rise, therefore one might assume that the number of people participating in football would also be increasing, however this is not the case. The 2013 Sport England Active People Survey actually shows a decrease of around 100,000 in the number of people aged 16 and over that participate in football once a week. Nevertheless let us not under estimate football’s popularity as it still remains the fourth most popular participation sport with only swimming, athletics and cycling preceding it, rendering it the most popular team sport. Figures show that team sports are generally on a decline, perhaps due to people wanting to participate in individual activities that they can schedule around their own timetable, yet football still has 1.8million participants every week compared to its closest team rival rugby union, which has only 159,900. If we delve into these statistics further we note that only 18.5% of participants are members of a football club, although 25% have played competitively, both a slight decrease on previous year’s figures. This suggests that the majority of adult football participation takes place in a more recreational context.
This decrease in participation, alongside other issues, have resulted in public funding cuts to the FA of 1.6million by Sport England, potentially impacting grassroots football and young people in particular. In the 14-25 year old age bracket football is by far the most popular sport with 1.3 million participants, illustrating that this age group make up the majority of footballs demographic. Similarly The Taking Part survey (DCMS, 2013) shows that for 11-15 year olds football was the most popular with 56.1% having played in the last four weeks, seeing significant increases since 2010/11. Schools also had the strongest club links with football clubs. This suggests that football is still the most vibrant sport being played in secondary school, and regular participation appears to continue up until the age of 25.
These trends are also replicated in a survey by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation in 2012 showing football as the most popular team sport for women, with around a quarter of a million participants. Figures from the FA show that 1.38million women and girls in England participate regularly, reinforcing the importance of the younger demographic in these participation figures. As with the Active People’s Survey individual activities are still the preferred choice for women with football only the 9th most popular sport overall and continuing to see decreases in participation rates each year.
The story behind the statistics
The statistics paint the picture of football being the most popular team sport with children aged 11-15 and also into adulthood represented by the 14-25 age group. Yet with a wider range of sports becoming more accessible to the general public through national governing body funding initiatives and the London 2012 legacy there has been, and continues to be, a gradual shift in the types of activities people are engaging in, with individual activities growing each year. So although overall participation numbers in sport are rising those participating in the more traditional team sports such as football appear to be declining at adult level.
In addition various media reports attribute government cutbacks to the steady decline of grassroots football stating the local authority playing fields used by the majority of amateur football clubs are just not up to the standard required (Winter,2013). Furthermore the fees to use these poor facilities continue to rise, making grassroots football more expensive but also less enjoyable and more of a challenge for those involved in its organisation. Lack of coaches qualified to a high level is also cited as a key failing of grassroots football (Winter 2013), with perhaps poorly qualified coaches producing inadequate sessions and discouraging continued participation amongst participants.
Following the success of Team GB in London 2012 and the subsequent increases in swimming, athletics and cycling participation it may be feasible to suggest that the success of the England men’s team in Rio 2014 may be a crucial factor to help give football participation levels a useful boost.
DCMS (2013). Taking Part October 2011 to September 2012 Supplementary Child Report. Statistical Release, April 2013.
Department for Education (2013) ‘Evidence on physical education and sport in schools: key findings’ [online] Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/226506/Evidence_on_physical_education_and_sport_in_schools-summary.pdf (Accessed 9 June 2014)
Sport England (2014) ‘The National Picture’ [online] Available from: http://www.sportengland.org/research/who-plays-sport/national-picture/ (Accessed 9 June 2014)
Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (2012) ‘Football Factsheet’ [online] Available from: http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=5&ved=0CEgQFjAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.thefa.com%2F~%2Fmedia%2Ffiles%2Fthefaportal%2Fgovernance-docs%2Fequality%2Fwomen-and-girls%2Fwomens-football-fact-sheet-oct-2012.ashx&ei=TJiVU8rLD8He7AaQiIEg&usg=AFQjCNHLM40pRUljBuVjWCB7KZraRG1OVw&bvm=bv.68445247,d.ZGU (Accessed 9 June 2014)