“What comes first, do you eat or play rugby?”: inequalities widen in sports participation

Published 28/11/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

On 30 November the Senedd will debate the Culture, Culture, Communications Welsh Language, Sport and International Relations Committee’s report into participation in sport in disadvantaged areas.

As in so many areas, the impact of the pandemic on participation in sport has been unequal. Data from Sport Wales (from February 2022), the national sports development body, shows that almost a third of adults feel the pandemic had a positive impact on their exercise routines. Those that found the opposite include people from lower socioeconomic groups and those with long-standing health problems – both of which are more common in disadvantaged areas. The increased cost of living looks set to compound these inequalities.

The Welsh Government has been clear that the pandemic highlighted the benefits of physical activity – which decreases mortality from COVID and a host of other conditions. But with modest funding increases for Sport Wales being outstripped by inflation, it’s hard to see how these words can be translated into increased activity.

The Senedd’s Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport and International Relations (CCWLSIR) Committee recently published a report into participation in sport in disadvantaged areas, calling for a new national approach and a funding boost. The Welsh Government rejected both of these recommendations.

Inequalities grew during the pandemic

Soon after the first lockdown in spring 2020, Sport Wales commissioned research into the nation’s changing physical activity habits. Similar surveys, conducted roughly every six months since, show how behaviour changed, and which patterns outlived the end of restrictions.

Early surveys showed that the total volume of exercise taken by the Welsh population remained fairly consistent with pre-pandemic levels. What changed was how this was distributed across society.

From the first survey in May 2020, adults from higher socioeconomic groups reported exercising more than before the pandemic. Adults from lower socioeconomic groups reported a drop-off in activity.

Data from February 2022 shows that almost a third of adults feel that the pandemic led to positive changes to their exercise routines. But over 40% of adults felt the opposite. Men, older adults, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those with a longstanding condition or illness are the most likely to feel that the pandemic negatively impacted their exercise regime.

Meanwhile, Sports Wales's School Sports Survey shows a stubborn deprivation gap in school-age participation in sport. In 2022, 32% of pupils in the most deprived areas (based on free school meal eligibility) took part in organised sport outside the curriculum three or more times a week, compared to 47% of pupils in the least deprived areas. This 15 percentage point gap has grown slightly (by 2 percentage points) since the last survey in 2018.

Is funding sufficient to make sport “the nation’s most effective preventative health tool”?

At the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, exercise was one of the few reasons people could legally leave their homes. Among the many physical and mental health benefits of physical activity, was reduced risk from COVID-19 itself. Once restrictions eased, the stage seemed set for an increased social and political focus on sport.

The Welsh Government has recognised that “the pandemic has impacted on our physical health, and has created a mental health crisis”. And that “Sport can be the nation’s most effective preventative health tool but greater cross-sector prioritisation is needed to create the long-term sustainable shifts in participation”.

Preventative health care would seem the right prescription for a country where NHS waiting lists grew by 50% between March 2020 and April 2022. But rather than rising to meet this challenge, funding for Sport Wales has plateaued, limiting the extent to which the organisation can capitalise on this momentum.

In comparison with the 2021-2022 Final Budget, revenue funding for Sport Wales increased from £22.4 million to £22.7 million in the 2022-23 Final Budget (an increase of 1% in cash terms). This funding is projected to increase to £24.1 million by 2024-25 – a 6 per cent cash terms increase, but far below the current rate of inflation.

In comparison with the 2021-2022 Final Budget, capital funding for Sport Wales decreased from £8.6 million to £8 million in the 2022-23 Final Budget (a decrease of 7 per cent in cash terms). This funding is projected to remain at £8 million until 2024-25.

Government funding for sport doesn’t just come from the sport budget, but includes other areas of public spending such as local authorities and schools. Some interventions are directly funded from the health budget: these amounted to £1.6 million in 2021/22, or 5 per cent of the funding allocated to Sport Wales that year.

Norway and New Zealand are often cited as world-leaders when it comes to sports participation. Matthew Williams from the Welsh Sports Association told the Committee “It's really important to emphasise that they spend between five and 10 times the amount that we do on sport. Wales does very, very, very well on participation and on elite performance off a relatively small slice of investment”.

“What comes first, do you eat or do you play rugby?”

Private citizens spend far more on sport than the state. Sheffield Hallam University estimated (in a report for Sport Wales) that in 2019 consumer spending on sports participation was £167 million, over five times the annual Sport Wales budget. As the cost of living crisis continues to shrink real-terms household incomes, people in disadvantaged areas may well have to reprioritise this spending to more immediate needs.

“What comes first, do you eat or do you play rugby?” a coach asked the Committee, “£15 is huge for some families, kids travelling to away games – petrol costs are huge. It’s bound to have a lasting effect.” The most recent Sports Wales data (August 2022) shows that 41% of people say the cost-of-living crisis has had a negative impact on their ability to be active.

Inequality gaps in sports participation grew during the pandemic, and look set to be compounded by the cost of living crisis. This is just part of a bigger picture that has seen health inequalities widen over the last decade. The premature death rate for heart and circulatory disorders is almost double in Blaenau Gwent (one of the most deprived areas in Wales) what it is in the Vale of Glamorgan (one of the least deprived).

Another recent report by the Committee concluded that the sport and culture sectors were particularly exposed to the impact of increasing costs – with growing participation gaps and a risk of permanent closure of venues including swimming pools. It called for additional, targeted funding for these sectors.

The Welsh Government may have said that “Sport can be the nation’s most effective preventative health tool”, and more recently called for “a legacy from the world cup that inspires the next generation of boys and girls". But flat funding for the sector and no significant changes in policy raise questions as to how this cycle of participation inequality will be broken.

Article by Robin Wilkinson, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament