Wednesday 8 April 2020 9:42 am

Coronavirus: The pandemic could change the sport and leisure sector for good

Co-Founder and CEO, OpenPlay

Long ago, back in January 2020, people made new year’s resolutions about going to the gym more… which they might have been achieving, until a global pandemic came along.

The decision to shut down UK gyms and leisure centres in March would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. The industry had never looked healthier – in 2019 it was worth over £5 billion to the UK economy, with gym membership at a record of 10 million.

The global impact of coronavirus has been sudden and breath-taking. Aside from the human tragedy, the effects will change our lives forever – ushering in everything from a recession to a baby-boom.

Read more: Yoga mats up in sales

We may also see subtler cultural shifts – like the end of the handshake and paying by cash. One of the most fascinating changes could be to the way we exercise.

Fighting Back

With team sport cancelled and gyms closed, operators and personal trainers have come out fighting to safeguard businesses and livelihoods.

The obvious answer is embracing technology. The leisure sector – which has long resisted disruption – is pivoting fast to stream sessions and engage audiences digitally.

This has thrown a lifeline for people up and down the country, who are turning to fitness to get themselves through the crisis.

Some are trying to substitute their normal active routines, but others are trying out things for the first time, with a new-found appreciation for the freedom of movement.

With our Government-prescribed daily dose of exercise, those who are able to are waking up to Joe Wicks, or going for their first run in years, or doing an online Zumba class. Sales of yoga mats and skipping ropes have surged as people fashion home gyms.

What could this mean for the future of gyms?

This pandemic will raise lots of questions for the sport and leisure sector about the way it recovers.

There are the obvious things – how long until lock-down lifts? And how best to navigate the crisis?

There should also be more searching questions asked about future implications. How to ensure customers feel safe again in gyms? Will the move to online or home-based exercise be habit-forming?

Shape Up

The answer for the sector is to be part of shaping solutions. Things will not just go back to normal, but our fundamental need for exercise, in an increasingly health-conscious world, will prevail.

Leisure centres that provide a destination for family and community are likely to fare better, above functional, no-frills gyms. Those that have forged a sense of emotional connection with customers online could also come out stronger, with a diversified business model and a new market of consumers.

There is a real opportunity for sport and leisure to work with technology leaders to solve the issues this pandemic has created and exposed. Just imagine if we could create a better streaming service for online classes, for example? Or apps to help protect people running in increasingly isolated spots? The potential of data analytics in this sector is also hugely untapped.

This is not the economic shock that any of us wanted or needed. But it is one that will accelerate the adoption of technology in an industry that has so far avoided making the most of its potential.

As we face down a terrible crisis and an uncertain future, our health has never been more important. Improving digital skills and mindset will help the resilience and strength of the sport and leisure sector, which needs to be at the absolute heart of keeping us safe and well.

Sam Parton is the Co-Founder and CEO of OpenPlay

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.