MAINTAINING and realising the sporting legacy of this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games is a huge challenge. But it also presents the chance for those governing sport to do things differently, and find a new generation of participants as a result.
Existing policy has failed to engage people in sport in the volumes hoped for. A couple of years ago there was talk of getting 1m more people playing sport – after several years and an increase of only 120,000, everyone shut up about that. But the problem wasn’t the target so much as these sports’ sluggish approach to innovation.
Sport, particularly traditional team sport, needs to accommodate itself to today’s lifestyles if people are to keep playing the games that they love. Rugby, for example, expects twice weekly evening training from senior club players as well as Saturday matches; this represents a significant commitment for something most employers would deem a hobby, so it is unsurprising that participation levels in English rugby union have dropped by 34,700 in the last four years.
To its credit, this government has recognised the problem and has taken the bold step of merging two major sport quangos, Sport England and UK Sport. These will now be under the stewardship of Air Miles founder and London 2012 organising committee stalwart Sir Keith Mills, who has been tasked to promote sporting innovation to encourage mass participation.
For several sports this is old news; in 1987, football introduced a five-a-side football business called Goals, which 180,000 people now play each week, resulting in a company turnover of nearly £50m annually. Cricket has thrived from Twenty20 and Last Man Standing; urban golf goes from strength to strength; swimming has emulated the Great North Run with the Great East Swim and attracted over 20,000 participants last year; 200,000 cyclists took part in the 2010 Sky Ride.
As for rugby, my own business, Trys Rugby, is looking to leverage the success of touch rugby, whose English leagues attracted 15,000 players last year. We are in the process of developing a chain of purpose-built rugby centres linked to retail destinations and Aviva Premiership rugby grounds. Trys is a five- or six-a-side format, faster and non-contact; it is played on floodlit, synthetic surfaces available year-round and is suitable for all ages – including those serious about rugby as well as those looking simply for a fun way to get fit.
Traditional team sports will always have their place, but the future of the British sports industry is about change. Clever rights owners understand it and are marketing their commercial opportunities now. The sports of the future can be good for investors as well those who end up on the pitch.
Andy Baker is the chief executive of Trys Rugby and former director of Next Generation Clubs, part of David Lloyd Leisure.