The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was making some progress in increasing national participation in sport and physical activity until the impact of the pandemic reversed these gains. However, it needs to do more to reach key groups who are less likely to be active including women, the least affluent and Black and Asian people, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The government promised an increase in grassroots sport participation as part of the long-term legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Government set up an Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Cabinet Committee in 2012 to oversee the delivery of a variety of programmes for the legacy. Several initiatives were set up, such as Sport England’s1 £135 million ‘People Places Play’ programme which sought to improve local facilities, train local sports leaders, and encourage adults to try Olympic and Paralympic sports. However, the proportion of adults participating in sport at least once a week declined in the three years following the Games. The Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Cabinet Committee was disbanded in 2015 and government attention to legacy waned.

The government shifted its approach in 2015 to focus on outcomes of participation in sport and physical activity, such as physical and mental wellbeing, through a new strategy ‘Sporting Future’. It promised to target funding at tackling less active groups of the population, believing this would deliver the biggest gains for public spending. ‘Sporting Future’ also committed government departments to work more closely together on delivery and funding, as maximising participation in sport and physical activity contributes to a range of other departments’ priorities such as tackling obesity. While there was some increased collaboration following the publication of the strategy, this has not been consistent or sustained.

Activity rates increased nationally in the three years before the COVID-19 pandemic, but progress with specific, less active groups was mixed. The percentage of active adults increased from 62.1% in the year to November 2016 to 63.3% in the year to November 2019. This is equivalent to 1.1 million additional active adults, more than double the government’s target of 500,000. Sport England set itself activity targets for 2020 for two specific less active groups: women aged 16-60 and lower socio-economic groups. Immediately prior to the pandemic the number of people from lower socio-economic groups increasing their activity levels through Sport England funded programmes was on track, at 83% of the target level. But for women aged 16-60, the rise was only 18% of the target. Among less active groups which did not have set targets, over-75s and disabled people experienced statistically significant increases in activity levels prior to the pandemic, but there was no such increase in Black or Asian ethnicity groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic was highly disruptive for sports and physical activity. The percentage of adults who were active fell to 61.4% in the year to November 2021 – the joint-lowest level for the year to November results since Sport England began collecting these data in the year to November 2016. This fall has exacerbated inequalities in activity for the least affluent, Asian people and disabled people. DCMS is exploring what lessons it can take from the pandemic.

Sport England’s new strategy for grassroots sports and physical activity, ‘Uniting the Movement’, takes a more localised and collaborative approach than before. It continues to focus on encouraging activity among the inactive but also gives greater prominence to addressing inequalities in participation. DCMS also plans to publish a new strategy in summer 2022 to replace its 2015 strategy. This will include how it will work across government to ensure greater joined-up working between the sector and government departments. Both Sport England and DCMS are developing how to measure the success of their new strategies.

To support the delivery of its strategic objectives for participation in sport and physical activity, the NAO recommends that DCMS sets out how it will lead the delivery of objectives that it shares with other departments. It should also set out how it will measure the success of its strategy. Sport England should check that its distribution of funding supports its objective to target lower socio-economic groups and do more to share its insight and learnings with the sector.

“Grassroots participation in sport did not receive the post-London Olympics and Paralympics boost hoped for at the time. Since 2015 DCMS has refocused its approach on the benefits of sport and physical activity, targeting the inactive.

“Overall activity levels were gradually increasing before the pandemic but these gains were lost as facilities and clubs were disrupted. In recovering the position, DCMS should also tackle persistent inequalities in participation.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Grassroots participation in sport and physical activity

Notes for editors

  1. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is the lead department for the sports sector and is responsible for maximising participation in sport and physical activity. It directs most of its spending for this objective through Sport England, its arm’s length body created in 1996 to develop grassroots sport and get more people active across England.
  2. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

 About the NAO

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and reports on the value for money of how public money has been spent.

In 2021, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £874 million.

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