Sports Participation: How to capture Olympic interest

Discussion started by Sophie Morris , on Tuesday, 30 August 2016 07:21

TeamGB won a record number of medals at Rio2016. Some sports improved on London2012 and some fell short, but whilst the buzz of the Games is still high, what can National Governing Bodies (NGBs) do to capture and retain the interest in sport?


The Olympics has just provided the biggest advert possible for sport. Although the time difference made watching some crucial events tricky, the BBC did a fantastic job showing replays and highlights and having many programmes at once live on the iPlayer.


TeamGB then set a great example with their #IAmTeamGB campaign throughout the Games. The medalists have seemingly been on TV constantly since they landed back on home soil on a variety of programmes to target all demographics and promotional activity culminated on Saturday 27th August with the nation’s largest sports day.


Sports participation events were held all over the country with medalists in attendance and ‘give it a go’ experiences for most sports. ITV stopped broadcasting on all their channels to encourage people to get off the sofa and to go out and get active.


There was heavy support on social media and a well-executed communications plan to back it up, including a post-event survey that asked about participant’s future plans to take up sport or activity. It will be interesting to see how that is followed up. Athletes also went back to their own clubs for ‘welcome home’ events where their inspiration will be felt most highly.


The fall after 2012

Despite the amazing effect that the London 2012 Olympic Games had on the Country (from the sporting spectacles to the invigorated volunteer network and the regeneration of neglected areas), the strongest legacy – that of sustained growth in sports participation – was sadly lacking.This was even evidenced in the Government’s Select Committee on Olympic and Paralympic Legacy which concluded that there was “a lack of a clear legacy plan for capturing the enthusiasm of the Games within all sports”.


Looking at the figures, we can see that there was an increase in participation just after the games, but it was short-lived, although it remains higher than it was before the Games when looking at all sports combined.



We can see the jump in participation after London 2012 better if we zoom into the chart, below. The overall increase from October 2008 – April 2016 is 648,900.



The main contributors to the increase were females and adults (26+ yrs). The participation figures for males, under 26 yr olds and black and ethnic minority communities remained largely flat.


There are three sports with very large increases in participation over the last two Olympic cycles. They are athletics (+46%), boxing (+48.9%) and gymnastics (+40.3% from 2009 – 2016).



So, can we expect another jump in participation now after the 2016 Games? And can participation continue to grow consistently throughout the four-year cycle to the next games?


Back to basics to boost participation

It’s over to the NGBs to gather that national interest created by TeamGB into each individual sport and to retain the interest once converted. The future success of Team GB is dependent on participation. More people practising gives you not only a bigger pool of athletes for elite development but more ambassadors, more volunteers, more fans, more TV demand and other streams of revenue. In general more commercial power.



So, we would take them back to basics and look at their marketing strategy. Who is the customer and what ‘product’ are they offering to them?


NGBs need to understand the wider environment that they operate in – that is, the Government’s position on health and activity, the funding that is made available to them, the public’s desire for sporting activity and their disposable time and income to be able to do so. How do they fit with other associations in the same sport at local, Country or UK/GB level?


They then need to understand the specific needs of the customers they are trying to target – who are the key target segments, what is their behaviour profile, what are their sporting needs? Also, what other competition is vying for their time? Not just other sports, but other leisure pursuits, such as shopping, the cinema, e-sports etc.


Capturing the interest

Once there is a clear customer and competitor profile, NGBs can assess how their capabilities can best meet those needs at a sustainable competitive advantage.


This could mean changing the ‘product’. Does the traditional format of the game appeal to the target market? Does it need to be adapted in some way? In rugby, 15-a-side contact rugby on Saturday afternoon may not appeal to the 16-24 age group but 7s or Touch rugby on a weekday evening might.


Traditionalists may be reluctant to change the sport that they have played or been involved with all their lives, but NGBs must adapt to the changing needs of the market or see participation and interest in their sport fall.


Remember that sports compete against each other for winning customers, fans and members, as well as other leisure pursuits.


Consideration should also be given to changing the ‘product’ to ensure it appeals to TV broadcasters, which will bring a wider audience and add sponsor value. The Badminton World Federation changed its scoring mechanism in 2006 in order to reduce the length of a match and make it a more viable product for TV.


Changing lifestyles and the huge variety of choice available for people’s leisure time means that sports need to be more accessible and affordable.



As well as a good product, sport also needs good people to deliver it. This means both the paid staff and voluntary staff for the NGB but also those involved in clubs and teaching sport in schools. A participant’s experience of sport is hugely affected by the people delivering it.


Other aspects that affect experience and appeal of the sport include the physical attributes around the sporting delivery i.e. the brand image as portrayed through team kit, vehicles, membership packs, merchandise, venues, website and social media channels etc.


When it comes to promoting sport, the promotional mix selected for acquisition is the easiest part. The internet will be the first port of call for many people and so being found through Google search and having a website that is optimised to capture interest is crucial. For example, one particular NGB saw a 500% increase in social media engagement and a 350% increase in enquiries on their website through the Rio 2016 Olympics.


The use of athletes will be key. How can their profile be used to continue to inspire and educate? Athletes will need support in media training and understanding the role they can play in development. Some are very humble and may not realise the impact they can have, or the expectations of sponsors, media and the NGBs themselves. Others, if badly advised, might be too focused on commercial interests, neglecting what they can give back to their sport.


All channels need to be optimised to capture this interest and gather all the information that will later be needed to profile the audience and deliver relevant communications to them.


Converting interest to participation

It is the conversion of that interest and the retention that is more difficult. However, with sport, there is a lot of content to be used through owned media, especially utilising the athletes, and bearing in mind that many people coming to the sport in this period may be brand new to the sport or have not played in a long time. There is a great opportunity for education as well as encouragement to take up the sport.


This is where profiling the audience is important, as an experienced coach wanting to get back into the sport requires very different communications that a 7 year old looking to try it for the first time.


Not only is there a need to build a customer pathway for each profile type, but also to build a communications programme for them, that will drive them from interest to conversion.


The building of those processes will be pivotal to the sustainability of the participation growth seen around each Olympic Games.


Athletes are an NGBs most powerful acquisition tool but the CRM system is the most powerful retention tool.


The key takeaway for NGBs is that they should capture interested individuals, understand them and their needs, deliver solutions to those needs in an engaging way and convert them into long-term sports participants.


Latest Discussion
Sophie Morris
Hi Matt,

Thank you for reading the article and for your comment. The data we see here of UK participation shows us that there is always a spike after the Olympics (the survey is in October each year) but that drops off the year afterwards.

What we want to see (and work with Governing Bodies to achieve) is continued growth throughout the Olympic 4 year cycle.

A 49% increase in searches is fantastic. The important thing is to ensure that the interest from that spike is captured, along with the data required to correctly profile the individual and understand their needs. 'Customer' pathways need to be built to deliver relevant communications to convert the interest into participation and maintain the relationship so that you know for sure whether they go on to join a team or not.

268 days ago
Matt Farrell
At USA Swimming we are strong believers in the impact of "Olympic Fever." The past three Olympic Games we have seen membership spikes ranging from 7-13% when a non-Olympic year might be 0-2%. For Rio 2016 we saw a 49% increase in searches for swim teams on our site from 2015, so we hope many of those go on to join teams!
268 days ago filesmonster