This paper questions whether policy goals focusing on increasing sport participation levels in England are achievable. The policy background for this stems from Sport England’s goal of year-on-year growth in the number of adults participating in sport for 30 minutes at least once a week. The paper argues that a considerable level of participation turnover is not captured in national figures, suggesting that adult sport participation in England is already saturated.
The analysis uses datasets from Sport England’s Active People survey and Sport England’s Satisfaction with the Quality of the Sport Experience research between 2007/8 and 2010/11. This includes a synthetic estimation across the datasets to examine the extent to which a year-on-year increase in the proportion of the adult participation in England participating once a week is achievable.
Since 2007/8, adult sport participation in England has remained relatively static. Half the adult population do not participate in sport, and a significant proportion appear to have little interest in doing so. Of those participating in sport, around a third have been doing so for some time, and a third have increased their participation in the last year whilst a third have decreased. At any time, around 10-15% of the population are likely to fall out of the group participating at least once a week within a year, whilst around 10-15% are likely to join the group, keeping participation rates relatively stable at 55%. This makes increasing overall sport participation rates incredibly difficult, because you have over half the population already engaged in sport, a significant group experiencing changes in life circumstances that make sport less of a priority, and around a third of the population not interested in sport participation at all.
This paper focuses on sport participation in England, but its findings are also relevant to the situation in Scotland, which is experiencing similar static levels of overall adult sport participation since 2007/8. Sport participation policy in both England and Scotland have tended to ignore the fact that people move in and out of participation over the course of a lifetime, with national statistics failing to capture this participation turnover. Policy is often underpinned by models focusing on changing attitudes and behaviours, whilst development practice tends to assume participation levels will increase by simply removing barriers. However, both approaches are flawed in isolation because barriers are irrelevant without motivation, but stimulating motivation whilst barriers exist leads to frustration and disengagement. As a result, effective sport participation policy requires a model that considers the interaction of motivation and barriers and the effect on participation turnover.