Commentary

Sport Needs Common Sense And Local, Joined-Up Marketing

How should we market sport in the UK? Today's huge centralised sporting national governing bodies, through sports associations. local government or some other body? That's the big question of the day as it emerges, again, that despite London 2012, sports participation levels are down and a public consultation is on the way.

Come to think of it, though, did anyone really think the London Olympics would do anything other than face the country with a massive bill -- estimated to have reached GBP9bn, three times higher than the original estimate? Today, the massive sum is haunting the present government as it simply cannot hide from the facts. We were told the huge investment in infrastructure and the massive influx of sponsorship money, not to mention the halo effect of those gold medals, would lead to a healthier, fitter Britain.

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The reality is that sports participation levels are down. Last year a quarter of million fewer people went swimming than the year before. Across the board the statistics are showing no uplift. There simply has not been a GBP9bn legacy of people becoming more involved in sport. 

If you wanted to increase sports participation levels significantly, would you spend £9bn on a big party in your capital with some infrastructure that may or not remain and then expect everyone to suddenly take up sport? Or if that was your aim, would you throw a few billion pounds at giving every town in the country a 3G or 4G astroturf pitch, or two, so there's an all-season resource for kids and adults alike to play a wide range of sports, and not just football?

I'll put it another way. I've been to the FA's St George's Park, which cost £120m to build -- and don't get me wrong, it's a great resource, albeit it with what I would call over capacity, particularly with outfield pitches. If you were promoting football, though, I ask again, would you spend that amount of money on a single location in the middle of the country, or would you spray around some £50,000 grants to get 3G or 4G astroturf pitches installed up and down the country? You could build, at an incredibly rough calculation, 2000 pitches or more and still have £20m for the national squads to have a central facility.

Here's another thing I've never understood. Instead of allowing schools to sell off their playing fields, why doesn't government provide grants to allow them to build leisure centres, perhaps in a public-private partnership? Let's face it, if we're going to lose a billion on RBS shares, what's another billion on ensuring that people get fit and active? You'd then have the best of both worlds. Schools with sports facilities in their backyard, rather than a housing estate. Those facilities would save busing kids to a nearby leisure centre or council-run sports fields and could act as a focal point for communities to organise sports around. Kids would be at school and parents would be in near daily contact with it, so that's got to be a good start for getting awareness out there about five-a-side leagues, archery lesson, trampolining and what have you. On a mercenary note, it could hardly be bad for school funds to have sports facilities onsite which it can then allow the public to book at evenings, weekends and holidays.

As any sports sponsorship marketer will tell you, if you throw money at the top of sport and don't embed it in your brand at all levels, you've wasted your budget. If you chuck a huge pile of cash at a rugby or football team and don't back that up with local action to spread the word, you might as well just buy a box at Wembley and save everyone the pretence, the investment is anything other than inviting bigwigs to big events.

The same goes for the government and its national sports organisations. If you chuck money around at the top, you'll doubtless get some elite athletes to have great training at centralised locations they're probably happy to move to in order to progress. But if you think that will empower people elsewhere to get involved in the sport you are kidding yourself to the point of self-delusion. 

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