Most major, traditional sports are struggling with declining numbers of participants globally, which is even more true in the case of team sports. For example, participation in American football in the USA has fallen by a million to 5.2 million participants between 2015 and 2017. The UK’s Active Lives survey shows a drop of 400,000 participants in team sports in the last two years, while no team sport features among the top 10 list of physical activities for men or women in Australia and New Zealand.
Our clients globally are trying to understand how they can reverse these trends: retain their core players and attract newcomers. They ask us to look at ‘new’ sports, ‘modern’ sports, sports that appeal to ‘the youth’ etc. in order to find the silver bullet change that will make their traditional sports more attractive and modern.
Whilst not a ‘new’ sport, the growth of skateboarding and skate parks can offer interesting lessons. From being a relatively fringe, high-risk sport, its popularity has grown to the extent of becoming a medal-winning discipline at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The relatively low costs of buying a skateboard enables casual participants to take up the sport. It is possible to skateboard in streets, pavements and public venues. Skateparks can be built in open areas using temporary structures. Many high-quality skateparks have none to minimal entry fees with no subscription requirements, which opens access to all sections of society. Open spaces also attract large audiences who enjoy it as a spectator sport. Additional options such as cafes and swimming pools also mean a visit to a skate park can be enjoyed with the family. As a sport with high cardio-vascular activity, skateboarding also has considerable health benefits that attract a broad range of participants. The social appeal of skateboarding has also been successfully leveraged by commercial operators such as the X-Games, as well as municipal authorities from urban councils in the UK to major global cities such as New York and Toronto, where a separate skateboarding and skatepark strategy complements their masterplans for city parks and youth engagement strategy.
However, there is still much to learn from the traditional sports. There is arguably no sport in the world that has more tradition and history than cricket. This statement caused lots of debate in our offices, and as one of our colleagues said: “if we can draw lessons even from the likes of cricket, we should be able to write a book of best practices”. It is followed passionately by nearly 30% of the world’s population, and at the same time totally ignored or misunderstood by the other 70%. Our colleague is in the latter category. Cricket is seen by many in the west as the quintessential English village game: tea and cucumber sandwiches drawn out over long hours where nothing happens, with a strong element of fair play added for cultural seasoning. In fact, it is a highly competitive game with 3 internationally recognized formats, a 4th recently introduced and a 5th one in the works. It is also growing strongly commercially, with the International Cricket Council (ICC)’s income from rights growing by ~50% to US$2.5 billion in its current cycle, and the advent of new leagues and formats bringing the game to a wider audience. It can also be played almost anywhere by anyone. In the Indian sub-continent, it is played by millions in urban areas, often with any form of bat and ball and at any street corner. In the World Cup this summer just one game between India and Pakistan will be watched by an estimated 1 billion people - live.
So, what are the common features? Why are the players so ardent and fanatical about the game? What can cricket and other sports learn?
Will Glenwright is the Head of Global Development for the ICC based in Dubai. Will and his team are responsible for growing the game in 90+ countries outside of the major test playing nations. He was by chance watching a game of ‘car park’ cricket in Dubai, where 2 teams of friends get together every week and play, literally in a car park. They set up the ‘pitch’ in seconds and play a highly competitive, yet loud and fun game. Will asked them why they do it and why they enjoy it so much. The answer they gave: “It’s all about the biryani”.
While biryani is not recommended nutrition for elite players - indeed, Wasim Akram, arguably the game’s greatest left-arm bowler, recently criticized the Pakistan national team’s diet in the lead up to the World Cup by saying “Our players are still being served biryani, you cannot compete against champions by feeding them biryani” – it could not be more essential to these car park cricketers.
Looking at other sports our research as shown that “it’s all about the biryani” has 4 main ingredients:
- The tribe - it’s fundamentally about people getting together– it binds them together as a ‘tribe’. It’s ok within the tribe to joke with each other, argue, be ultra-competitive. The tribe is a social group …it can be difficult to enter but research has shown that being a part of one not only provides a reliable social network but also has considerable physical and mental health benefits (also known as The Roseto Effect, based on the Roseto tribe located in Pennsylvania, USA).
- The preparations – it’s when plans are made. The week starts with lots of banter on social media group chats. Teams are formed, rivalries renewed, references to past glories and failures extolled; where and when to meet, who is bringing the limited required kit, who is providing the food for afterwards. But what happens after that is largely irrelevant – except to fuel future banter.
- The game – it’s easy to organise and play. They turn up and the banter intensifies – all in good nature with a non-too subtle edge of gamesmanship thrown in. And the battle ensues, someone wins and someone loses.
- The ‘afters’ – it’s an excuse to meet and talk about family, politics, sport in general and sometimes cricket in particular. And of course the mind-games start for next week’s social gathering over cricket and biryani.
When we compared Will’s story we realised that this experience was fundamentally shared across all team sports. Understanding and acknowledging that increasing participation is about human behaviour means we can derive strategies, programmes and campaigns that address these motivations.
Such interventions to grow participation need to be backed by data and insights. Sports leaders need to embark on multi-year research programmes across all demographics and leverage these findings to design strategies tailored to each area and demographic. Sport England’s Active Lives Survey annually measures habits of ~180,000 people around the UK in addition to ongoing focus groups, to build a body of intelligence based on quantitative and qualitative research. Similarly, Australia and New Zealand survey ~25,000 individuals annually.
These national sports surveys consistently show that the opportunity to have fun, socialise, spend time with friends and family and relax are the top motivators for people to be physically active, as well as the positive impact on health and well-being. Sometimes there are obvious barriers that need to be addressed: financial; availability and access of facilities; the requirement to play within specific set of rules.
Sometimes the barriers are less obvious. Jennie Price spent 12 years as CEO of Sport England (the organisation responsible for driving participation in the country). She was the leader of the “This Girl Can” programme (credited with getting 1.6 million more women active and winner of numerous awards e.g. at Cannes Lions in 2015). Jennie says that “we identified a unifying barrier: a fear of judgment. Many women felt they were the wrong body-shape or not skilled enough or felt guilty about spending time on themselves rather than on their families. We set out to create a campaign that tackled these emotional barriers, rather than the purely practical barriers like time and cost.”
Similar research programmes need to adopt a human-centred design approach that focuses on the user experience – understanding what drives them towards or away from sport and understanding if there is a set of common drivers to participation.
The approach to participation should be inclusive, bringing people together and strengthening social cohesion. Facilities should be versatile, allowing for multi-purpose use and maximise utilization of open spaces and temporary structures where applicable. Ongoing programmes which help to make the sport more popular, attract different demographics and drive sustained participation are key. Sports should also be able to highlight their positive impact on overall physical and mental well-being.
Governing bodies and sports authorities, while working to enable the growth of the sport, also need to know when to “get out of the way” so people can enjoy the sport in a free, unencumbered way. This re-emphasises a point in our “biryani” story, where programmes should be adapted to not just capabilities, but also the social surroundings and go beyond the game itself. Being able to work with the right set of local partners is also key to achieve the right balance. An example of this is the Leicestershire Cricket Club’s South Asian female outreach programme, which combines cricket with Bollywood dance classes.
While prioritising participation, the competitive element should not be lost and can even drive growth in the right environment. Many Governments and Education Ministries have failed to understand this when deprioritising the competitive element in youth sports.
Finally, the aspect of ‘NextGen Sport’, e.g. ‘gamification’ using the digital disruption of sports, is already prevalent today whether in fantasy leagues, private leagues, fitness applications or gym studios. It encourages people to compete against colleagues, family or friends. This drives banter and conversation that in turn encourages further participation. This should be embraced by sports leaders rather than feared.
So, to increase participation it’s not just about the sport – for most team sports ‘it’s all about the biryani’*.
(* PS or replace with ‘prawn on the barbecue’, ‘picnic on the lawn’ etc. etc.)