Football and tennis, two of the mainstays of Britain’s sporting landscape, are in danger of losing millions in public funding after experiencing alarming declines in the number of active participants over the past year.
Sport England’s latest ‘Active People Survey’ of sports participation across the country has revealed that 288,000 fewer people are playing football regularly compared to last year, a drop of 14 per cent, while tennis has a suffered a nine per cent fall, with just 406,000 adults playing the game for at least 30 minutes a week.
The figures for tennis are particularly shocking in a year when the country basked in the glory of a British winner of the Wimbledon men’s singles title for the first time in 77 years, proving that the Andy Murrayeffect has not produced any short-term growth for the sport.
It leaves the Lawn Tennis Association at serious risk of having its Lottery support cut unless it can demonstrate to Sport England that it has a credible strategy to halt the decline.
Last year, the LTA had its funding slashed from £24.5 million for the previous four-year cycle to a single-year award of £7.1 million, with £10.3 million for the remainder of the 2013-17 cycle being withheld until the sport could show it had turned itself around.
The LTA will meet with Sport England officials next week to discuss the survey results and try to persuade it that it has a proper plan for growth, otherwise it could find itself millions out of pocket. The number of active participants in each sport is the basis on which Sport England makes its funding decisions.
Describing the tennis figures as “disappointing”, Jennie Price, the Sport England chief executive, said: “As fantastic as Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon was, that gives them a platform and a great profile. They did a lot in August and September and had a bit of a lift from that but it was not sustained.
“They need a really good delivery system outside the clubs such as on the park courts and they will be getting that message very loud and clear from us.
“We’ve only had these figures for 24 hours so we’re not going to making a decision now about funding, but what we did with tennis was to give them a one-year award with very clear indications that it would be reviewed and that we would make a decision about the next three years.
“We’re meeting tennis about that next week and the decision goes to our board in January. The one thing I would say about tennis is that since we made that decision and put them on notice, there has been a complete sea change in attitude and their new chairman, David Gregson, has really grasped this agenda and they’ve done a lot of really good work about understanding their market and finding out who plays tennis and why they play.
“What they haven’t done yet is roll out any big participation programmes so, in a way, while I’m disappointed with the tennis figures, I’m not surprised because they are not yet working at scale, for example, in park courts, which is where they really need to concentrate, not the clubs. People who play on park courts, the casual tennis players, are the ones they need to capture.”
Nick Humby, the LTA’s chief operating officer and acting CEO until Canadian Michael Downey takes over next month, said he was optimistic the sport could make a convincing case with Sport England, with ambitious plans next year for a national promotional campaign and free tennis sessions in clubs and parks to attract new players.
“Next year we’re going to have a national calendar of events from April through to August,” he said. “The idea is to promote tennis nationally, but locally to encourage and develop relationships with the people who are brought into the parks and places to play under that national banner.”
The Football Association, which was awarded £30 million for the 2013-17 cycle, has also been put on warning that it could face funding cuts after experiencing the steepest decline in player numbers of any sport in England. It now trails swimming, athletics and cycling in England in terms of active participants.
Price said: “There is now to be a discussion with the FA and our board, but we operate a payment-for-results scheme, so football is definitely in the at-risk zone.
“The FA has the power to do an enormous amount of good for grassroots football as they have a lot of sponsorship, a lot of power and connections, but they need to focus and work much more effectively. They have to think big in their participation programmes.”
The drop in the number of footballers has also gone hand-in-hand with a worrying fall in the number of young people between the age of 16 and 25 doing regular exercise, raising doubts about the long-term legacy of the London Olympics, which had put young people at the heart of its vision. The survey recorded a year-on-year 51,000 drop in the number of young people taking part in sport.
Price said half of that decline was attributable to falling numbers in team sports such as football and netball. “Young people do seem to be coming away from traditional sports and so I think there are two jobs there,” she said.
“Firstly, football in particular needs to get its act together and make sure it’s really attracting young people, and secondly we need to make sure there is another option. It shouldn’t be team sports or the sofa. It needs to be extreme sports, exercise-based sports — the whole range.”
Across the entire age range, post-Olympic participation levels appear to be holding up, with 15.5 million in England now playing regular sport, matching the figure recorded a year ago a couple of months after the London Games.
An interim survey in April had indicated a decline in participation numbers but the latest figures show the drop was a temporary blip probably caused by the long, cold winter.
Cycling continues to reap the benefits of its success at elite level with just over two million people now getting on their bikes at least once a week, while athletics and running reported a 63,000 increase and swimming arrested its recent decline.
There has also been a substantial rise in the number of disabled people taking part in sport, with an extra 62,000 doing regular physical exercise compared to last year.