England behind Europe in supporting volunteer sports clubs

Support for grassroots volunteer-led sports clubs is lower in England than other European countries, a new report has revealed.

The first research project to compare sports clubs, led by volunteers across ten different European countries between 2015 and 2017, found the availability of facilities has threatened the existence of 9% of English clubs.

Geoff Nichols, one of the authors of the report, said: “One of the difficulties is getting enough people to volunteer, sports clubs have got to make it easier to volunteer and people have got to realise that its only run because of the network of volunteers making it possible.”

The project, funded by the European Erasmus+ programme, found similarities in club structure through its online survey of over 35,000 European clubs.

The report titled Social Inclusion and Volunteering in Sports Clubs in Europe was led by the Geoff Nichols from the University of Sheffield’s Management School and Matthew James from Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Ruston Sports and Social Club, Lincoln

The structure of sports clubs in England was similar to Europe, but English clubs tended to be older, and women were under-represented in membership numbers in all countries looked at.

Migrants were a special focus group for almost half of all Swiss sports clubs and about one third of clubs in Hungary, but only 6% of the clubs in England.

Mr Nichols added: “We can see that levels of sports participation and volunteering are higher in some other countries which appears to be associated with more supportive government policies.”

Other countries have subsidised the use of facilities especially for young people including tax concessions for volunteers’ work or expenses.

Woodside Athletics Stadium

English clubs have a tradition of independence from government and it is seen as a right- unlike in other European countries.

According to the report, 90% of clubs in England had to pay for public facilities, compared to 50% in Germany and in Denmark the use of public facilities was paid for by the government.

When asked about a possible solution, Mr Nichols said: “Sports clubs have got to make it clear that it’s a moral obligation to volunteer within the club rather than just paying their submissions.”

He added: “I think one thing sports clubs can do is react to a trend away from traditional team sports and to activities that people can drop into more infrequently.”

The report mentioned the increasing popularity of activities such as ParkRun, as an alternative to traditional sports clubs.

Parkrun in Graves Park, Sheffield

Sonia Twigg

MA Journalism, Sheffield University @sonia_255