On 16 May 2024 the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:

Lord Wood of Anfield (Labour) to move that this House takes note of the contribution of all sports to society and the economy, and in particular of the impact of community sport on young people’s health and well-being.

1. Sport and society

According to data from YouGov from September 2023, around 22% of adults in Great Britain play at least one sport. The same data found that 58% followed at least one sport (defined as watching games on TV or live and/or supporting a particular team).[1] As illustrated in figure 1, football is by far the most popular sport played and followed, with tennis, rugby and cricket also followed by substantial numbers.

Figure 1. Reported sports engagement, September 2023

This chart shows the proportion of YouGov survey respondents who report playing and following various sports. Football is the most popular with over 35% of people following and 10% playing. Tennis, rugby and cricket are the next most popular in terms of following (15% to 17%). Tennis and golf are the next most popular in terms of playing (4%).
(YouGov, ‘Which sports Brits play’, accessed 9 May 2024; and ‘Which sports Brits follow (watch live or support a team)’, accessed 9 May 2024)

According to Sport England, an arms-length body responsible for growing and developing grassroots sport, the playing of sport has a range of benefits, including the following:

  • Physical wellbeing. Sport and physical activity can help prevent ill health as well as provide therapeutic and management effects for those suffering—particularly for people affected by cancer. It can also lead to improvements in strength, balance, movement and motor skills, and help in maintaining a healthy body weight. Other physical wellbeing outcomes backed by evidence include improved quality of sleep, increased energy levels, healthy early years development, reduced unhealthy behaviours like smoking, reduced mortality, effective pain management and improved quality of life in ageing.[2]
  • Mental wellbeing. Physical activity can contribute to enjoyment and happiness, and more broadly to life satisfaction through increased social interaction. Volunteers and sports fans also have an increased sense of purpose and pride, while self-esteem and confidence are known to increase through participation or volunteering. Sport and physical activity also have the potential to reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.[3]
  • Individual development. Sport can have a positive impact on a person’s employment opportunities and provide support to those who are not in employment, education or training. There’s also clear evidence being active improves educational behaviour and attainment, through greater self-esteem, confidence and direct cognitive benefits. It can also help reduce anti-social behaviour in disaffected young people and increase willingness to volunteer and the development of soft skills, such as integrity, responsibility and leadership.[4]
  • Social and community development. As well as developing individuals, sport and physical activity can help build stronger communities by bringing people together. Sport is widely seen as a way for people of different backgrounds to interact and integrate by taking part, volunteering and spectating. It can provide opportunities for migrants to adapt to living in England and can bridge divides between men and women, homeless people and those who are not homeless, and people with different employment backgrounds.[5]

Following sport is also reported to have tangible benefits. For example, a recent study published in the Sport Management Review suggested that watching sport enhanced wellbeing.[6] The study found that “watching sport was positively associated with […] increased brain activity and the structural volume in the specific brain regions related to wellbeing”.[7] The researchers noted that the positive effect was intensified when watching sports that were more popular.

Separately, research commissioned by UK Sport suggested that there was evidence that major sporting events had a positive impact on wellbeing.[8] Specifically, it found that 83% of the UK population was proud that the UK hosts major sporting events, with 70% of survey respondents saying that watching or attending such events positively impacted their happiness.

In addition to the above, there is also evidence that sport can help to reduce crime. In August 2023, the College of Policing published an evaluation of sports-based interventions (SBIs), sports programmes focused on diverting individuals identified as being at risk of offending and/or reducing reoffending by individuals who have already committed crime.[9] The SBIs studied as part of this evaluation:

  • led to a reduction in reoffending, drug use and aggressiveness
  • improved attitudes towards offending and anger control when compared to individuals who did not take part in the intervention

The studies considered by the College of Policing did not identify the precise mechanisms through which these outcomes were achieved, but the studies assumed that SBIs were able to reduce crime because sport can: have a positive impact on hormones, which can in turn reduce aggression; be a physical diversion from crime; satisfy sensation-seeking tendencies; and provide social learning and good role models in the form of coaches.

2. Sport and the wellbeing of young people

As with adults, young people also benefit from regular sport and physical activity. Indeed, Sport England suggests that the benefits of sport for physical and mental health are even more profound for young people than they are for adults:

Positive experiences at an early age help build the foundations for an active life. If children and young people have experiences that feel fun, positive and give them a sense of confidence, they’re more likely to want to be active in the future.[10]

Research undertaken by Manchester Metropolitan University, on behalf of the Youth Sport Trust (YST) and HMC (The Heads’ Conference), supports this assertion, finding a positive association between sport participation in school and higher levels of wellbeing for young people.[11] This research also found sport participation to be a “significant predictor of self-belief and mental toughness, key life skills for young people”.

However, despite the potential benefits, only 47% of children are estimated to be meeting the chief medical officers’ guidelines of taking part in an average of 60 minutes or more of sport and physical activity a day.[12] The number of children taking part in no regular activity is also estimated to have increased to 600,000 in 2022/23, up 127,000 from 2017/18.

NHS Digital data on obesity rates among school children indicates the importance of sport and physical activity for physical health outcomes. As illustrated in figure 2 below, the prevalence of obesity and severe obesity increased sharply in 2020/21, when the most severe pandemic-related restrictions on activity were in place.

Figure 2. Rates of obesity and severe obesity among primary school age children, 2014/15 to 2022/23

This chart shows the rates of obesity and severe obesity for primary school age children from 2014/15 to 2022/23. Both rates are fairly stable for most of the period, with the obesity rate at around 7% and the severe obesity rate just over 2%. However, both rates increased sharply in 2020/21, to almost 10% for obesity and almost 5% for severe obesity, before falling back down again in 2021/22.
(NHS Digital, ‘National child measurement programme, England, 2022/23 school year’, 19 October 2023)

3. Sport and the economy

Sport also makes a significant contribution to the UK economy. Statistics published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport estimate that the sport sector contributed £18.1bn to the economy in 2022—0.8% of total economic activity—supporting around 550,000 jobs.[13] From 2010 to 2022 the sector grew by 32.2%, outpacing the rate of growth in the economy more broadly (21.5%).

This kind of growth is also expected to continue. A report from PwC found that industry stakeholders were expecting annual global growth in sports industry revenues of around 6.6% over the next three to five years, up from 5.5% growth for the previous three to five years.[14] Revenue growth in women’s sports is expected to be even higher, with three-quarters of industry stakeholders forecasting annual growth of 15% or more.

As well as directly contributing to the economy, sport also provides indirect economic benefits. For example, a healthier population helps reduce costs for the healthcare system. Research conducted by the Sport Industry Research Centre (SIRC) at Sheffield Hallam University for Sport England estimated the value of sport in terms of preventing a number of serious physical and mental health conditions to be around £9.5bn.[15]

Separately, evidence submitted to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee found the reduction of crime resulting from SBIs generated significant economic impacts.[16] For example, an evaluation of the Fight 4 Peace martial arts programme showed it generated £1m worth of savings to the exchequer directly, as well as an additional £2.5m worth of lifetime education and employment impacts, with these benefits amounting to around four times the cost of the investment in the scheme.[17]

This kind of return on investment is in line with estimates made by the SIRC, which estimated the combined economic and social value of taking part in community sport and physical activity in England in 2017/2018 was £85.5bn, with every £1 spent on sport and physical activity generating almost £4 in return.[18]

4. Government policy

In August 2023, the government published a new sport strategy: ‘Get active: A strategy for the future of sport and physical activity’. In it, the government acknowledged the benefits of sport and physical activity, saying “the healthier we become both physically and mentally, the stronger our communities, and the more prosperous our society”. Therefore, the government said it wanted to “help build a healthier nation by tackling high levels of inactivity” and that central to this would be “a focus on establishing a lifetime habit of being physically active amongst children and young people”.[19]

The three core priorities of the strategy were as follows:

  • Being unapologetically ambitious in making the nation more active. By 2030 the government wants to see “2.5 million more adults and 1 million more children being classed as active in England”, with a joint government and sector ‘National physical activity taskforce’ created to create accountability for this target.[20]
  • Making sport and physical activity more inclusive and welcoming for all so that everyone can have confidence that there is a place for them in sport. The government will help achieve this by “promoting women’s and disability sport, championing diversity across the sector and holding the sector to account for investing in these groups”.[21]
  • Moving towards a more sustainable sector that is more financially resilient and robust. The government will support the sector to “access additional, alternative forms of investment to help it continue to grow and thrive” and improve coordination and information sharing between government departments, the sport sector and subject matter experts to help align the sector with the government’s net zero ambitions.[22]

The government’s strategy was welcomed by several stakeholders in the sector. For example, Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of Sport England, said the strategy was “a highly ambitious document that clearly understands the role activity can play in the health and wellbeing of our nation”.[23] However, others stressed the need for a plan to deliver the government’s ambitions. For example, Ali Oliver, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, said “whilst there is much to welcome, we await further information on the implementation and delivery plans needed to fully harness the vast potential of our sector”.[24] For Labour, then Shadow Sports Minister Jeff Smith said:

This long-delayed report continues the tradition of words but no substance from this government on sports. Instead of another taskforce, the government should come forward with a substantive plan to get our country more active. Labour would include a greater emphasis on sports in schools to set young people up for active lives.[25]

5. Read more

Cover image by Freepik.


  1. YouGov, ‘Which sports Brits play’, accessed 9 May 2024; and ‘Which sports Brits follow (watch live or support a team)’, accessed 9 May 2024. Return to text
  2. Sport England, ‘Physical wellbeing’, accessed 9 May 2024. Return to text
  3. Sport England, ‘Mental wellbeing’, accessed 9 May 2024. Return to text
  4. Sport England, ‘Individual development’, accessed 9 May 2024. Return to text
  5. Sport England, ‘Social and community development’, accessed 9 May 2024. Return to text
  6. Keita Kinoshita et al, ‘Watching sport enhances wellbeing: Evidence from a multi-method approach’, Sport Management Review, 22 March 2024. Return to text
  7. As above. Return to text
  8. UK Sport, ‘New report reveals economic and social benefits of the UK hosting sporting events’, 12 January 2023. Return to text
  9. College of Policing, ‘Sports programmes designed to prevent crime and reduce reoffending’, 3 August 2023. Return to text
  10. Sport England, ‘Positive experiences for children and young people’, accessed 9 May 2024. Return to text
  11. Youth Sport Trust, ‘The benefits of sport participation and physical activity in schools’, 29 November 2023. Return to text
  12. Sport England, ‘Children’s activity levels hold firm but significant challenges remain’, 7 December 2023. Return to text
  13. Department for Culture, Media and Sport, ‘DCMS sectors economic estimates gross value added 2022 (provisional)’, 15 February 2024; and ‘Economic estimates: Earnings 2023 and employment October 2022 to September 2023 for the DCMS sectors and digital sector’, 3 May 2024. Return to text
  14. PwC, ‘Bouncing back: PwC’s global sports survey (7th edition)’, 7 February 2023. Return to text
  15. Sport England, ‘Social and economic value of community sport and physical activity’, accessed 9 May 2024. Return to text
  16. House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, ‘Changing lives: The social impact of participation in culture and sport’, 14 May 2019, HC 734 of session 2017–19. Return to text
  17. House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, ‘Written evidence submitted by Fight for Peace UK’, February 2018. Return to text
  18. Sport England, ‘Social and economic value of community sport and physical activity’, accessed 9 May 2024. Return to text
  19. Department for Culture, Media and Sport, ‘Get active: A strategy for the future of sport and physical activity’, August 2023, p 3. Return to text
  20. As above, pp 2–3. Return to text
  21. As above, p 4. Return to text
  22. As above, p 5. Return to text
  23. Sport England, ‘Statement on the government’s new sport strategy’, 30 August 2023. Return to text
  24. Youth Sport Trust, ‘Detailed response to ‘Get active: A strategy for the future of sport and physical activity’’, 1 September 2023. Return to text
  25. Paul MacInnes, ‘Holes picked in Conservatives’ new activity strategy for UK sport’, Guardian, 30 August 2023. Return to text