Football’s continuing participation crisis

Tuesday night and the text messages become more frantic; do you know anyone – anyone at all – who can show up for a game of 5-a-side tomorrow evening? Getting players is always a challenge at this time of year when people start taking their holidays, but is there something more at play, is this scramble for players indicative of a wider trend for declining participation in the game?

Once again the Active People Survey, commissioned and published by Sport England has revealed worrying figures for football. In the latest set of stats, covering the period April 2014 to March 2015, the number of people aged 16 and over participating in the sport at least once in the last 28 days showed a continued decline with the figure now standing at 2,660,000, down from the peak of 3,150,200 for the period October 2010 to October 2011. Equally worrying is the decline in participants who are members of a club; For football this has declined from 642,300 in the Active People survey covering Oct 2007 – Oct 2008 to 481,300 for the period April 2014 – March 2015 while, over the same time period, the numbers taking part in competition have plummeted from 962,500 to 676,300.

Active People graph

The stats themselves reveal little about the causes of this decline, but there are several explanations which have been in circulation including; changing working patterns, lower disposable income, lack of good facilities, and the impact of spells of inclement weather. Even the closure of pubs has been implicated – with good reason too, as many local pubs acted as hubs for organising teams and recruiting players (Interestingly the survey also shows a sharp decline for traditional pub games such as darts, pool and skittles – the number of people playing pool at least once in the last 28 days falling dramatically between October 2006 – October 2007 and April 2014 – March 2015 from 97,900 to just 39,400).

Traditional team sports requiring a large number of players and – quite often – a degree of organisation appear to have been similarly affected by declining numbers. Participants in rugby union fell from 267,800 in the first Active People survey, spanning October 2006 to October 2007, to 248,000 for the period April 2014 to March 2015 whilst for cricket numbers fell from 380,300 to 259,200. Contrastingly, over the same period, cycling – a relatively more individual sport -has enjoyed a dramatic increase in popularity from 3,554,800 taking part at least once a month to a current 3,817,400.

AP index

The stats though leave out as much as they reveal. Importantly, for football, the survey does not differentiate between 11-a-side and other forms such as 5-a-side and Futsal. This means it is not possible to chart the relative changes in the popularity of these different forms of the game and whether, for instance, a deeper decline in 11-a-side is not potentially masked by the popularity of 5-a-side. What is clear however, is that the ongoing participation crisis is biting deep into the grass-roots level of the game. Over a quarter of a million fewer players taking part in competitive football is enough to see long-established leagues wither and even fold, in turn causing the organisational infrastructure which makes, in particular, competitive 11-a-side possible to become further diminished. This can only make the challenges of providing improved facilities, flexibility, accessibility and affordability even greater and it is these challenges which need to be met if football is to halt its decline as a mass-participation sport.

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