Sport as Entertainment – 4. Changing Lifestyles and Declining Participation

A major trend in the developed world is that we’re doing less and less physical activity.


This trend can be measured in many ways and can be readily related to broader socio-economic trends such as longer working hours, more sedentary occupations and increasing numbers of dual-income families, all of which are contributing to a decline in time available for physically active recreation.


In the context of these trends and the increasingly competitive recreational market, it’s not surprising to learn that participation levels in organised sports are dropping. Traditional sport formats that take several hours and require a multi-week commitment are not well- suited to a time-poor world in which recreational options (especially screen-based) are proliferating. If today’s trends continue, it has been estimated that adult participation in sport could fall by around 15% by 2036[1]. As these trends play out and obesity rates[2] rise further, it is also expected that reduced participation by parents will have the flow-on effect of reducing their children’s levels of sports participation.


And it is when we focus on children that the more telling illustrations of this trend can be seen because it is in the early years that our experiences of exercise, physical education and sports participation are most influential in determining levels of physical activity throughout our lives.


Evidence abounds of the steady and significant decline in the levels of sport participation and physical education in schools. A good example is a project undertaken by the University of Western Australia that tracked for over 30 years Australian children’s ‘physical quotient’, a measure of physical fitness and skill levels, in one of the largest studies of its kind in the world. Their work shows a startling decline in children’s physical literacy that the authors attribute in part to the decline of PE and sport in primary school. Some key findings:


  • Children’s fitness has declined, with the average child in 2015 finishing 250m behind the average child in the 1980s over a 1.6km run;
  • Children’s scores for basic physical skills, such as throwing, catching, kicking, forward rolls and handstands, have declined further than fitness levels;
  • Together, this means the ‘physical quotient’ of the average child today is 10 to 15 points lower than their 1980s peers on a 100 point scale.[3]


The most serious implication of this decline is that far more Australian children are reaching adulthood today without adequate levels of physical activity and know-how (physical literacy) needed to lead active, healthy lives.


The interesting contrasting trend here is that some sports are experiencing growing participation levels, particularly those that are undertaken for personal and lifestyle objectives. As the Australian Sports Commission/CSIRO report The Future of Australian Sport notes:


“People are fitting sport into their increasingly busy and time fragmented lifestyles to achieve personal health objectives. Participation rates in aerobics – running and walking as well as gym memberships – have all risen sharply over the past decade while participation rates for many organised and team sports, with the exception of soccer, have held constant or declined (Standing Committee on Recreation and Sport, 2010). This is partly because society is becoming highly health-conscious. Individualised sport and physical activity is on the rise. People are increasingly opting to go for a run with the headphones and a music player rather than committing to regular organised or structured sport. For such people the notion of winning is changing. They are more concerned with beating a personal time or fitness target than beating a competitor. Their sport is tailored to meet personal needs and health is a major driver.”[4]


The report also notes “the rise of adventure, lifestyle, extreme and alternative sports, which are proving particularly popular with younger generations. These sports typically involve complex and advanced skills and often have some element of inherent danger and thrill seeking. Examples include skateboarding, kite surfing, inline skating, freestyle BMX and rock-climbing. These sports are also characterised by a strong lifestyle element and participants often obtain cultural self-identity and self-expression through their involvement.”[5]


So how do these trends relate to my theory about the transformation of sport to entertainment? I see them impacting in several ways.


The first and most direct impact is being felt already at the local competition and club levels where many sports are facing flat or declining participation rates. This is creating a vicious cycle within the community club and league system through the consequent loss of social capital and falling volunteer numbers, which further impact the operational and financial viability of the sector. With fewer participants, competitions become weaker and unsustainable – with acute impacts that we are seeing particularly in rural communities.   Falls in revenue and funding result in facilities declining, further diminishing the attractiveness of sport in the face of competing forms of recreation.


Some sports are responding with measures to stabilise child participation rates such as Auskick, Kanga Cricket, NetSetGo. However, these programs are generally reliant on the deep pockets of the big, commercial sports, which necessarily limits the choices available. Nor can they foster longer term participation beyond the life of these programs if there are fewer local clubs or competitions that kids can progress to.


A second impact, less direct but equally important, is that as traditional sporting institutions decline, our participation in sport is becoming less connected to community and more as an end in itself. For high performing participants, this isn’t such a big issue. Sport for them has always been a serious business rather than a social activity. But for the vast majority of average and below average performers, the camaraderie and inclusion derived from participation is critical to our enjoyment of sport and has been a huge incentive for ongoing involvement. Weaken or remove this aspect of participation and the overall experience is diminished. Factor in the growing participation in more self-focussed sports that have little connection with team, competition or community and this trend is exacerbated.


The third impact of dropping participation levels is the creation of a spectator cohort that is increasingly disconnected from the actual experience of playing sport. This has profound implications for how these people view sport. If you play a sport you not only better understand its rules and skills, but when you watch that sport you are also more likely to do so with passion and feeling. For example, if you’ve played cricket at any level, chances are you’ll appreciate better than those who haven’t the subtlety and nuance of a sustained spell of quality leg spin bowling. Even if there is no obvious dramatic action taking place, you’ll be taking in important variations of flight, drift and spin, knowing how hard these skills are to master. If you have no hands-on experience or knowledge of this, the same spell of bowling will probably bore you to snores.


In summary, sports organisers and promoters find themselves catering for an audience that is increasingly:


  • from sports as participants and competitors;
  • seeking more individually focussed recreational activities;
  • living busier, less structured lives that make significant time commitments to sport more difficult.


Is it any surprise, then, that they feel compelled to present their “product” in a way that appeals to this demographic? It actually makes perfect sense to try and attract a bigger audience by making their spectacle fun and easier to understand for people who’ve never played. Or to package it within a shorter time-span that accommodates busy lifestyles and shorter attention spans. The risk is that the richness and sophistication of a sport can be lost in the attempt to simplify and entertain. This can easily alienate its more knowledgeable, “traditional” followers. But perhaps that’s OK if, overall, the sport attracts more new spectators than it loses of the old. The challenge in responding to changing consumer preferences is to ensure that the sport doesn’t become intrinsically less appealing because it loses the very points of subtlety, complexity and difference that originally set it apart from its competition.


I see this trade-off happening in many spectator sports. The achievement of growing audience size often comes at the cost of a diminished level of audience engagement and commitment. Without a strong connection to the sport through participation, an already “footloose” audience is often being presented with a spectacle that looks and feels very much like its competitors. Entertaining it may be in a diversionary sense. Engrossing, perhaps less so.


However, we can’t shy away from the fact that our changing lifestyle patterns and preferences are driving our attitudes and preferences in relation to the sport we watch. As much as traditional sports fans may lament that their favourite sports are responding to these demand-side trends by adapting the product, it cannot be disputed that this is simply what any business would do in a dynamic market.


Of course, some businesses are smarter than others at reading the market signals and adapting, and sports are no different. In my next instalment, I take a look at a couple of examples of sports in Australia where profound changes have occurred – but not always easily or willingly.


[1] Boston Consulting Group, Intergenerational Review of Australian Sport 2017


[2] Australian Sports Commission/CSIRO report The Future of Australian Sport 2013 quotes data from Access Economics showing that in 2008 some 3.7 million Australians were obese. This is forecast to rise to between 4.7 and 7.5 million by 2028 in the baseline low-to high scenarios.


[3] Tester, G., Ackland, T.R., & Houghton, L. (2014). A 30-Year Journey of Monitoring Fitness and Skill Outcomes in Physical Education: Lessons Learned and a Focus on the Future. Advances in Physical Education, 4, 127-137. Quoted in BCG report.


[4] Australian Sports Commission/CSIRO report The Future of Australian Sport 2013


[5] Ibid.

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About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Richard Smith says

    excellent thought provoking article.
    I run and walk (solitary activities) for exercise. At the same age (late fifties) my grandparents played bowls and tennis (both social)

  2. Very thought provoking.
    As an example, I run for exercise, which is solitary. My grandparents played tennis and bowls at a similar age (late fifties).

  3. Stainless, the ‘great’ work/rest dichotomy is a factor we need to consider.

    The growth of temporary , casual, precarious employment impacts on our ability to find/enjoy leisure time. Contrary to what you may encounter in the Murdoch media we are working longer, though more irregular hours than previous generations. Australia has one of the most casualised workforces in the OECD. When you face the challenge of working long hours to retain your job, or being a casual unaware of when your next shift is, or how long it will be, it’s hard to commit to a pastime, like being active with your local cricket team.

    When I was younger I recall campaigns for shorter working hours, like the 35 hour week campaign. Surely with the advances in technology we should be working less, having more leisure time, but it’s turned out the opposite. Our lifestyle patterns are determined by the socio-economic world around us.


  4. I hear you Glen but I’m not convinced that it’s entirely about reduced leisure time. Team sports came of age prior to the forty hour week and I’ve heard plenty of stories about footballers going straight from the factories after a Saturday morning shift to play their matches that afternoon. Granted, working hours may be less regimented than they used to be but there’s a whole lot more leisure options available too. To Richards point, there also appears to be a societal trend away from joining clubs and organisations of all sorts, in preference to more individual forms of recreation.
    I sense an ideological debate on this issue. Are we victims of an ever more oppressive socio economic environment or are we simply becoming more self centred in our recreational choices?
    That’s for the thoughtful comments. Keep them coming.

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