New participation figures from Sport England’s Active People Survey 4 paint a mixed picture of progress in grassroots sport, with strong growth in running and cycling but a drop in numbers for other major sports. Overall, the poor increase in participation numbers seen over the past five years continues, with 6,938,000 people now claiming to taking part in sport at least three times a week. Weekly participation in  running has swelled by over 263,000 over the past two years, buoyed by a growing network of informal running groups across the country. Over the same period, cycling’s numbers are up by almost 100,000.

It could be argued that these increases are not an impact of any direct intervention, but purely through the market responding to growing trends and demand. Encouragingly, Netball’s participant numbers are up by over 26,000, an increase of a fifth in the size of the sport in two years. Much of this success comes from the Back to Netball programme, which tempts women to return to the sport with a fun and flexible offer. Of concern, however, is the performance of five of the top seven participation sports, including the only sports with more than two million weekly participants – swimming and football. Their size means that any fall in numbers has a major impact on the overall growth of grassroots sport.

It would be fair to describe the Active People results as a mixed bag”, said Sport England’s Chief Executive, Jennie Price. “What is concerning, however, is that a number of major sports have yet to deliver, despite significant levels of investment. They now urgently need to demonstrate their ability to grow participation in their sport and prove they can make a significant contribution to sport at the grassroots level.”

Duncan Wood-Allum commenting on these results said “Sport England and the NGB’s may want to consider that their interventions and investment are often still too far removed from their clubs, communities, schools and local authorities to make the right impact. Those NGB’s that are getting down to grassroots level and providing tools and support at the right level are getting results. Better coordinating the role and impact of CSP’s in the light of diminishing resources in Local Government will be key in stopping the rot – as will reviewing Sport England’s delivery mechanism through NGB’s which doesn’t appear to be working too well given the resources thrown at it over the last few years. With an Olympics less than 2 years away, it is nothing short of scandalous that participation is falling in our major sports. We would welcome an opportunity to contribute to a fresh debate on the best way to fund the development of sport in this Country.”