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Tapping into what people actually want to do Interview with Paul Downward

The primary challenge to our sector is to find ways to trigger citizens to be physically active and pinpoint the obstacles that make living an active lifestyle difficult. The pan-European survey, the Eurobarometer on sport, is often referred to when it comes to identifying motivations and obstacles as well as overall participation levels in Europe. The latest Eurobarometer on Sport is almost four years old and the European Commission has decided to conduct a new survey following the principles of the previous statistics.


Dr. Paul Downward from Loughborough University in the UK presented findings from his recent comparison of factors influencing male and female participation rates in England at the European Sport Economics Association’s conference in Esbjerg, Denmark. ISCA spoke to him recently about his view on participation and facilities, and how surveys like Eurobarometer paint a picture of ever-changing trends in sport and physical activity.


Related story: see how changing megatrends in sport and physical activity are influencing policy in Australia



Q: How would you describe the statistical survey Eurobarometer and its relevance in measuring the status of sport and physical activity levels in Europe, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?

A: Conducting a European-wide survey is a highly complex task. I think there’s something like 1000-2000 respondents from each country. So there’s an element in which you are necessarily avoiding some of the detail and some of the regional variation that might be relevant within the countries. There are also some issues in terms of the physical activity and sport measures that have kind of an odd scale. I think the frequency of participation goes from “Never” to “Less often than 1-3 times a month”, “1-2 times a week”, “3-4 times a week” and “5+ times a week”. So what we lack on the Eurobarometer is some sense of the intensity of people’s activity and something more detailed about the frequency and regularity. Because if we’re thinking about sport for, let’s say, health purposes, we’d want to know about those sorts of things.


What the Eurobarometer does have, unlike some surveys, is a hint about motivations behind participation in sport and physical activity. But they’re not drawn on any strong theoretical background. They’re really just statements of reasons why people do sport and also of course why people don’t do sport, which gives us some insight.



Q: What is preventing people from practicing sport regularly and do local facilities matter for participation?

A: This is the million dollar question. If you look, for example, at UK data, I think it’s something like 90% of people say there are sport facilities within 20 minutes distance from where they live. So I don’t think it’s a question of provision, per se. It’s probably a question of matching that provision to what people want. That’s the difference.


Because I think in terms of the Eurobarometer data, it also measures “Do you have sports opportunities in your area?” and I think 63-64% of people did, and around 60% said there was a local sport club offer. So it’s kind of like what you have in the UK. Bearing in mind that there are a lot of areas in Europe that are agricultural areas, and that rural areas are going to be very different from urban areas and so on, I still don’t think it’s really about provision; it’s about matching the provision to what people want to do. That’s what’s very difficult to pull out of this type of data.



Q: Do you think people’s participation also reflects the quality of the facilities, or is that irrelevant?

A: I think that quality matters, but it’s probably more to do with how they fit into people’s lives. So, as an example of what I was talking about in Esbjerg, what we found was quite a strong difference between males and females. If you look at the simple physical availability of facilities, there was a large number of those, including a tremendous amount of grass pitches, which of course lend themselves to male team sports. If you look at the kinds of things that females typically participate in, these are often things like pools or indoor gyms, keep fit and yoga. In this case we found that there’s very little satisfaction generally among females. Males are generally satisfied, but there appears to be an oversupply. So the females’ dissatisfaction suggested that there was an undersupply of facilities for them. So there’s a need to rebalance our activities.


Now that’s obviously something we’ve pulled out from the UK data. There’s probably a broader sweep in leisure activity that people haven’t got to grips with yet, which is that people in a post-modern age seem to want to do things in a more casual, unstructured way. Some of the faster growing activities are very informal ones. I think there might be a mismatch in the way people want to engage and the traditionally provided organised sport. It’s quite a complex picture and I think this is where the European Union will have differing experiences, because we know that in parts of Germany and France there’s a lot of state provision and local authority provision facilities and in the UK there’s more or less a private market now. I’m not sure that there will be a general European-wide solution to physical inactivity if we don’t take into account those differences.



Q: You talk about supply and demand issues. Do you think that some demographic groups have special expectations or demands for facilities than others? You’ve talked about the differences between men and women; it could also be children or disadvantaged groups?

A: I think that’s clearly the case. Unfortunately on the project that I was doing, because of the data requirements we didn’t actually have data on children’s activity and it was also very hard to measure minority groups’ differences because of the sample sizes. But there is a difference. So everything in the initial results was reinforced, so, let’s say, if you were a black woman it was doubly hard for you to fit. That could possibly be linked to social problems that compound on top of the normal the gender imbalances. Then you’ve got other issues about modesty and so on. There have been some smaller scale studies done to look at programmes to encourage, for example, Muslim females’ participation, because the circumstances in which they are going to participate are going to be very different from a white, Anglo-Saxon young girl. There are systems put in place, but there certainly isn’t wholesale policy to address those things, they’re usually only local initiatives.



Q: How would you say the accessibility and quality of the facilities influences levels of participation in sport and physical activity?

A: One of the surprising things that we found was this persistent low activity rate and yet this high accessibility to facilities. On the one hand, maybe people are actually choosing not to do sport. There’s a perception that it’s good for you and you should do it, and people who play sport love sport. But maybe some people just don’t want to do it. When you look at the millions of pounds and euros that have been spent on promoting physical activity, people still resist that behaviour. And if you look at other marketing campaigns promoting X and Y, people buy things – buy why are they not buying into sport? It could just be that they have no interest in it, and it could be that the whole way in which sport is portrayed is kind of flawed. I sometimes think about that, and I think about the idea of having an elite athlete encouraging someone to engage in sport. It’s a bit like saying, “Would a Formula 1 driver encourage somebody to want to drive?” People think that it’s too extreme; it’s too idealised; it’s almost inaccessible.


On the other hand, it may be because it’s the type of physical activity that’s presented. So one of the interesting things happening in the UK is that there’s an upsurge in people wanting to dance because of the television programme called Strictly Come Dancing where celebrity couples dance. People will buy into that. I don’t know how much, but certainly in terms of popular discourse these things seem to be around in the media and there’s media hype with them and it tops the BBC ratings. So maybe it’s something to do with the nature of the activity that’s the issue here. While there are facilities that have been built with good intentions, they replicate existing structures and maybe people just want to do different things. This means tapping down into what people actually want to do.