Written evidence submitted by Sported Foundation


DCMS call for evidence – threat to long-term sustainability of grassroots sports




Sported is a UK wide charity promoting fairness and creating opportunities for young people through grassroot sport and physical activity. We are the UK’s largest network of community groups supporting half a million young people to overcome barriers to reach their full potential.

The 2,600 groups within our network are deeply rooted within their communities and led by highly committed, passionate local people who often give up their time voluntarily to run initiatives that help young people from their community to succeed.

We specialise in supporting the survival, growth and long-term sustainability of local community organisations who are delivering Sport for Social Change by providing free professional expertise, resources and operational support. Most of our members can be considered ‘grassroots sports’ organisations. We find that such groups in the UK are under-funded and under-resourced, often run on shoestring budgets by only a handful of dedicated staff and volunteers, but their ability to engage and enhance the lives of the young people and tackle the problems that matter in their local community is unrivalled.

Reason for submitting


For over ten years Sported has supported grassroot groups and provided them with vital support. Through giving this support we have a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of grassroots sports organisations, as well the external threats they experience. We therefore aim to answer the second question:

The following information has been gathered using Sported’s existing insight from members, as well as interviews with internal Sported staff; those based locally throughout the UK, who have been providing support to grassroots sports organisations for many years.


Biggest risks to long-term viability of grassroots sports


Relying on an Exhausted Volunteer Workforce

The grassroots sports sector is powered by the good will of extremely passionate and dedicated volunteers. On average Sported groups have 3 paid staff but 20 volunteers and 52% of our groups are run entirely by volunteers. [1]

Not recognising the diversity of grassroots sports volunteers

Traditionally ‘sports volunteers’ are active themselves or their children are involved in activity. Given the unpaid nature of volunteering it is difficult for this group to be diverse; the profile of a volunteer is more likely to be older, relatively well off, and white, compared to the adult population in the UK.[2] However, Sported find that the volunteers running grassroots organisations are not your typical well-off, retired volunteer. 20% are non-white (compared to approx. 15% of people in the UK.) Approximately only 7% are retired.[3]

Increased pressure on volunteers

The workforce of grassroots sports organisations was already struggling pre-COVID-19; 29% of Sported members say they don’t have enough staff & volunteers for delivering sessions (coaches) and 35% say they don’t have enough staff & volunteers for day-to-day running of the organsiation (committee etc.).[4]

With COVID-19 grassroots sports leaders are experiencing even greater pressure. Sported group leaders are pivotal in their communities, they often take the wellbeing of their community on their shoulders. In the first few weeks of lockdown in March, Sported groups leaders reported their biggest concern was maintaining the wellbeing of their participants.[5] Sported groups adapted to deliver food packages to the vulnerable, provided activity packs to do at home, set up helplines, translated guidance, and even reported helping dig extra graves; they adapted to whatever the needs of their participants and their communities.

Later as they could resume activity in line with social distancing measures, they needed more volunteers and coaches to be able to deliver to the same number of young people safely. At the same time, COVID-19 has halted the upskilling of volunteers (safeguarding, first aid courses, coaching qualifications etc.) This means those already volunteering end up with a greater workload, yet they care so much about their community; they are too passionate, determined (and resilient) to give up their role. They take on more and more. When organisations are so stretched, it is harder to recruit other volunteers and the group leaders get caught in a vicious cycle. Leaders of Sported groups are experiencing increased pressure, but they are extremely resilient and reluctant to give up their roles:

I’m so desperate to keep the club going, I’ve put my own money into it and I’ve started using foodbanks.” volunteer leader, Sported focus group

“It’s the hope that kills you! When you do our kind of roles, you’re always hoping that you’ll get a break when you won’t be doing everything, but it never comes.volunteer leader, Sported focus group


Physical and mental health of volunteers

The grassroots sports sector is relying on a voluntary workforce who are already extremely resilient, but they are exhausted physically and mentally. Anecdotally Sported noticed a trend that many of our group leaders were vulnerable and in the ‘shielding’ category.

During the initial lockdown we spoke to many of our group leaders through our Community Pulse research. They reported high levels of anxiety; 6.8 (out of 10) in the first two weeks of lockdown compared to a UK national average of 2.9 in 2019. 30% mentioned how the moral support was what they appreciated most. Their exhaustion also comes from isolation; they are often unaware of or unconnected to other support that is available.

“To be honest and frank if more organisations were as helpful and professional as sported, volunteer groups would have fewer problems. The team at sported are always there to help and support us” Sported member, Community Pulse

Anxiety remained high and above average until at least the middle of May 2020.[6] Sported considers the over-reliance on an exhausted voluntary workforce the biggest threat to grassroots sports.


Access to Facilities

Grassroots sports are currently struggling with access to facilities. They generally rent facilities (only 15% of Sported members own their facility[7]) but find rental cost of facilities from local authorities or private owners prohibitively expensive or only affordable for use during undesirable hours. This leaves private facilities underutilised, and grassroots organisations seeking to use alternatives such as school facilities (which are not always made available) or community centres (which may not be fit for purpose).

With the pandemic both these options have become more complicated. School facilities are now restricted to school use only. Community centres are under-resourced, they may not be sure how to be COVID-safe, or the facility may be physical unsuitable for COVID compliance (not a big enough space, not ventilated, not enough entrances exits etc.)

Many of our groups would have been accessing facilities at subsidised or discounted rates, due to the nature of their work (achieving social outcomes.) Coming out of COVID-19, grassroots sports who previously access space at reduced rate will struggle as facilities will focus on full paying groups and individuals. Grassroots sports have the choice to either pay high rental costs, destroying their finances, or are displaced – delivering restricted activity or none at all.


Infrastructure of Support Agencies


Funding distribution

It’s felt on the ground that the system of support for grassroots sports suffers from short-termism and doesn’t have a long-term approach. The UK government funds elite sporting achievement through UK Sport. Whereas grassroots sport, delivered through the Sports Councils, are largely funded by National Lottery.[8] As Here for Sport explains, this appears as the UK government prioritising elite sport over grassroots sports. In 2017 Pro Bono Economics found that nearly 75% of Brits would prioritise grassroots funding over medals at Tokyo in 2020.[9] In 2018 the UK was amongst the lowest countries in the EU in terms of government spending on recreation and sport.[10] 

Funding for grassroots sports becomes very competitive and ends up going to those groups who have been successful previously and are good at writing funding bids. It excludes those who are perhaps more effective at achieving their outcomes but don’t have the capacity to write successful bids. Those who are using sport to achieve other social outcomes (as all our members are) have a harder time writing successful bids as they go through more stages to achieve their outcomes, compared to those who’s aim is increased participant numbers. In addition, there’s a feeling that diversity’ funding streams tend not to be designed by a diverse group of people, and hence do not serve the needs of the people they are aiming to support:

“Do Black people put together funding strategies? No. It’s put together through a white lens, so we have to adjust what we do so it fits.” – member, Sported’s Black Lives Matter focus group[11]


Groups find themselves regularly having to reapply for funding for the same project. There is a need for more long-term funding and easier repeat funding, so that groups can focus on longer-term planning.

National Governing Bodies and Sports Council have made significant progress towards really investing in communities (such as Sport England’s Tackling Inequalities Fund), however there are still many groups who are not aware of the opportunities available to them. The COVID funding response has been rightly focused on emergency short term funding but this hasn’t been coupled with capacity building suport, to help them consider longer-term adaptions and income generation beyond the grant. There is a risk that without the right support groups will end up folding anyway after having spent a short-term emergency grant.

Those organisations aiming to support clubs at the grassroots level (Sported, Streetgames, Access Sports, Active Partnerships etc.) also end up competing for space in the sector and central funding. Due to the competitive nature of funding, clubs on the ground end up competing to get young people into their activity. If organisations were more certain of their own future, they could work more effectively together for the benefit of grassroots sports.


In addition, there seems to be a lack of join up between different government departments (sports and education, health, crime prevention etc.) Community groups have made the connection between sports and various other social agendas at the grassroots level, however those departments and funding pots still seem very disparate.

COVID – 19

Inequalities have heightened and our mental health is suffering. As economic and emotional support measures through traditional routes struggle to meet demand, more pressure will be put on grassroots sports providers.

Adhering to social distancing measures has varying impact depending on the nature of the sport. Contact sports such as boxing, rugby, taekwondo, basketball etc. have had to significantly adapt to new variations of their sport. Participants are not getting out of it what they normally do, and may take part less and less. Those high-contact sports such as boxing are often used by Sport for Development / Change organisations. Whereas sports with a typically more affluent participant base are more closely able to continue as normal (tennis, golf, shooting etc.) In addition, as more activity providers have moved to delivering virtually, Sported groups leaders are concerned for those with poor access to IT & internet.

“Worried young people might drift away and get into other things and be difficult to engage when things return to normal. Not all of them have regular internet access now to maintain contact with them.” Sported member, Community Pulse Survey[12]

At the start of lock-down a huge importance was placed by the government on exercising once a day. This was hugely positive, and a message the grassroots sector is thankful for. Unfortunately, there is now a worry that as society and the economy get back on its feet this message will be forgotten.

Financial Security

Funding is a permanent long-term threat to grassroots sports. In 2019, one in four Sported members didn’t think they’d be around in five years’ time and only 4% felt very financially secure.[13] Funding will always be available; it may just be more competitive than ever and will still be restricted funds. Here we want to explain how the threat to clubs’ finances is different due to COVID-19.

Firstly, they are likely to have significantly reduced unrestricted funds. Grassroots sports clubs often rely on event fundraising (usually at least one face to face, large event per year) and/or corporate sponsorship from a local business. Those events won’t have been possible due to COVID-19, and businesses suffering means that sponsorship is likely to suffer.

Secondly, their costs of delivery will have increased to comply with social distancing measures. As they must deliver to smaller groups there will be increased cost of paying more coaches and supporting more volunteers, but fewer participants so less income from participants. There is also increased cost of equipment (as unable to share) and the cost of extra cleaning and signage. These costs are greater for those working with certain demographics, such as disabled participants.

Since most grassroots sports are surviving on little or no reserves, (only 38% of Sported members have a reserves policy, and 33% don’t have enough reserves to cover three months running costs.)[14], both these effects will have drained any reserves they had making them extremely vulnerable to closure. Those newer, less established groups (in Sported’s ‘survive’ category) were more able to ‘pause’ their delivery or adapt to other needs. Those more established groups (in Sported’s ‘thrive’ category) felt a greater impact as they have more financial commitments.

“Everything has closed down and there is no cashflow because of this. All the staff have been furloughed but still have to pay rent.” Sported member[15]

In the future, the uncertainty over retaining and re-engaging their participants is a significant concern for grassroots sports groups. In June 2020, one in four Sported members aren’t sure that participants will come back.[16] This uncertainly also fuels financially insecurity.

“Financial uncertainties for families mean they may not be able to access activities in the future.” – Sported member[17]

“We no longer have the resources to heavily subsidise those parents that can’t afford to pay for kids activities.” - Sported member[18]

Potential Key Measures to Increase Resilience

Supporting the Exhausted Volunteer Workforce

Potential interventions:


Supporting Access to Facilities

Potential interventions:


Supporting the Infrastructure of Grassroots

Potential interventions:


Supporting Effectiveness of Funding

Potential interventions:

Written by:              Rose Chilton, Insight Manager, Sported

Interviewees:               Dan Fyffe-Jardine, Scotland Manager, Sported

Emily Burns, North East Regional Manager, Sported

Kathryn James, South West Regional Manager, Sported

[1] Sample size 2,600, Sported’s member database

[2]https://data.ncvo.org.uk/volunteering/demographics/#:~:text=In%202018%2F19%2C%2065%E2%80%93,to%20all%20other%20age%20groups , https://sportengland-production-files.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/active-lives-adult-may-18-19-report.pdf

[3] Sample size 230, Sported Capacity Model (2017-2019)

[4] Sample size 174, Sported Capacity Measurement Tool

[5] https://sported.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Community_pulse_UK_2020.pdf

[6] https://sported.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Community_pulse_UK_2020.pdf

[7] Sample size 174, Sported Capacity Measurement Tool

[8] https://www.hereforsport.com/our-thoughts/sportsfundinguk

[9] https://www.itv.com/news/2017-02-24/three-quarters-of-uk-would-rather-money-spent-on-grassroots-sport-than-olympic-medals

[10] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/EDN-20200923-1

[11] https://sported.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Sported-Racism-Research-Report-October-2020.pdf

[12] https://sported.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Community_pulse_UK_2020.pdf

[13] Sample size 331, Sported member survey 2019

[14] Sample size 174, Sported Capacity Measurement Tool

[15] https://sported.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Community_pulse_UK_2020.pdf

[16] https://sported.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Community_pulse_UK_2020.pdf

[17] https://sported.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Community_pulse_UK_2020.pdf

[18] https://sported.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Community_pulse_UK_2020.pdf