Social Sport

Social Sport      
Prepared by  Prepared by: Dr Ralph Richards, Senior Research Consultant, Clearinghouse for Sport, Sport Australia (formerly Australian Sports Commission)
evaluated by  Evaluated by: Steve Pallas, Managing Director, Sports Community (June 2016)
Reviewed by  Reviewed by network: Australian Sport Information Network (AUSPIN)
Last updated  Last updated: 2 May 2018      
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Community Sport Coaching
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'Social sport' is a term used to identify one's engagement in sport in a less formal (i.e. anytime, anywhere) context. The motivation for participation and the personal and social outcomes of participation can vary from one individual to another. Social sport usually places less emphasis on performance results and their meaning and more emphasis on the relationships between participants. Although the element of competition is often present in social sport, it is generally not controlled or sanctioned by a governing body.

Most sports have a social aspect as well as a personal context. Therefore, sport has a social influence on its participants and sport (in all its forms) is also influenced by social conventions.

Social sports may have many elements in common with organised recreational sports, and a similar look and feel to standard or traditional competitive sports, but by their nature social sports remain informal.

More information can be found it the Clearinghouse for Sport portfolio, What is Sport?

Key Messages 


Social sport and organised sport both have common and uniquely defining factors, they can look similar or be separate.


Sport and physical activity can be viewed in a social, as well as a personal fitness context.


The Australian sports ‘market’ contributes about 2% to Australia's Gross Domestic Product (approximately $35.5 billion, Australian Dollars) and it's estimated that approximately 22% of this is derived from ‘social sport’.

People engage in social sport for many reasons, most of them intrinsic, for example: enjoyment; personal health and fitness; emotional wellbeing (feeling good); and social interaction (inclusion and friendship). The motivation for engaging in social sport may be very personal or simply a means of engaging with other people, with sport as a convenient setting.

Beach cricket and the many forms of backyard cricket (i.e. house rules) are good examples of a social sport that has been part of Australia’s culture for generations. Modified rules are agreed upon, scores are kept to determine a result, and the game can be played in a very competitive atmosphere. However, the motivation for participation is social interaction and to have fun, and not necessarily the competitive outcome.

There is an emerging awareness among Australia’s National Sporting Organisations (NSOs) and their affiliated State/Territory associations (State Sporting Organisations, SSOs) that people are motivated to participate in sport for many reasons, and that competition is only one of many factors. Although social sport is defined by its’ participant driven origins, organised sports are beginning to look at suitable ‘sports products’ having a social theme or outcome, rather than a structured competition outcome. NSOs see social sport as a way to increase their brand appeal, satisfy consumer demand, create a long-term affiliation with their (potential) customer, and engage a wide range of ability levels within a single sporting context. A common strategy underpinning a social sport product is to reduce the premium placed upon acquired skill level and experience, while highlighting the social and fitness components of the activity. This approach is intended to create a wider appeal to different ages and persons having different skill levels; encouraging them to participate together.

  • Barefoot Bowls is an example of a Bowls Australia (i.e. the sport’s NSO) product that is delivered at club level to attract new participants. It uses existing bowls venues in a (primarily) social context to stage the activity. It’s lawn bowls gone casual and just the thing to do on an evening, or any time friends get together. Participants don’t need a lot of experience to have fun with the game. Some expert guidance is provided as part of the hosting arrangements, as well as equipment. Sessions are organised upon request, so a regular playing schedule is not necessary.

Another way of conceptualising ‘social sport’ is to think of it as a form of ‘play’. Play can be defined as a physical activity having primarily social and intrinsic motivations and outcomes and having varying degrees of structure, which is determined by the participants. Social sport expresses the notion of play in the context of sport by introducing participant driven rules and/or competition.

Although play is a universal human experience, it is difficult to define – is play an innate physical activity, or is it a learned experience? Our understanding of play is paradoxical because the many examples of play can be so different; play can be serious, real, and purposeful, or play can be whimsical. There is evidence that play deprivation can have a damaging impact on a child’s development, so it appears that play may be an essential component of cognitive, as well as physical development. In general, play behaviour and social sport participation are intrinsically motivated and rewarding, controlled by the player(s) and concerned with process rather than product. The activity may be framed in a non-literal context with varying degrees of externally imposed rules. The essential element of ‘play’, as well as social sport, is the fact that activity is controlled and defined by the player(s).

  • Let the children play: Nature’s answer to early learning (PDF  - 106 KB), Hewes P, Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre, Grant MacEwan College, University of Montreal, Canada (2006). Play nourishes every aspect of children’s development—it forms the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills that are necessary for success in school and in life. Play ‘paves the way for learning’. Yet, the trend in most developed countries is for less time spent by children on play and substantially more time spent in settings that focus on structured educational and recreational activities. Children learn when they play in environments that stimulate/encourage exploration, discovery, manipulation, physical activity and engagement with self (i.e. imaginative play) or others (i.e. social interaction).
  • The Play Return: A review of the wider impact of play initiatives (PDF  - 1.1 MB), Gill T, commissioned by the Children’s Play Policy Forum, United Kingdom (2014). This report presents evidence to build the case for improving play opportunities for children; the focus is on children of primary school age. It looks at quantitative evidence of the wider outcomes and impact of play interventions and initiatives. The report looks at four types of interventions that each target a different setting: (1) opportunities for free play during school breaks; (2) unsupervised public access play facilities; (3) supervised out-of-school (before/after) activities, and; (4) street play initiatives. Drawing on this review of the empirical evidence, the report reaches the following conclusions about the wider impact of play initiatives:
    • Play initiatives lead to improvements in children’s physical and mental health and well-being and are linked to a range of other cognitive and social developmental benefits. While evidence of beneficial outcomes is strongest for play in schools, it is reasonable to expect the same outcome in other contexts where children have comparable play experiences.
    • Families and communities, as well as children, benefit from play initiatives. Play initiatives generate high levels of volunteering and community action by adults. This finding is echoed by the consistently strong support for play initiatives stated in opinion polls.
    • Play initiatives are associated with inter-related benefits across a range of health and developmental domains.
    • The improvement in opportunities for play is a valid outcome in its own right. When combined with the well documented benefits of play’s contribution to health, physical and cognitive development, and social skills; the case for greater play opportunities is well supported. 

Play, as a creative expression of physical activity, is also evident among adults. New York City has added 24 adult playgrounds throughout the NYC boroughs since 2012. A pilot study demonstrated the value of purpose-built play environments as a way to encourage physical activity among adults and create social sport opportunities. These adult playgrounds provide convenient venues for recreational breaks during the work-day, as well as opportunities for social interaction through informal sport. [Source: New York Times, 29 June 2012]

You think you are too old to play? Playing games and aging, Bronkkowska M, Bronikowski M and Schott N, Human Movement, Volume 12, Issue 1 (2011). Among the elderly, exercise compliance presents a barrier to improved health through physical activity. Older persons tend to drop out of programs that may be ‘too organised’ or too challenging. This paper explores the rationale for using traditional games to encourage physical activity, and as a way of engaging the elderly in social activities. Such activities do not have specialised skill requirements and may be useful as a form of physiotherapy.

Australians choose to take part in sport and physical recreation either through organised or non-organised activities. Organised activities can take place under the direction of clubs, sporting associations, or through a wide variety of other program providers.

The AusPlay Survey (AusPlay) is a key pillar of the Australian Government's policy Play.Sport.Australia, which is Sport Australia's (formerly Australian Sports Commission) game plan to get more Australians participating in organised sport more often. AusPlay is an independent research project at the population level which measures all types of activities in a consistent and comparable way.

  • AusPlay Participation data for the sport sector: Summary of key national findings October 2015 to September 2016 data (PDF  - 1.5 MB), and ebook version, Australian Sports Commission (2016). Information was collected on 20,021 adults (15 years and over) and 3,849 children (5-14 years) over the period from October 2015 to September 2016. Results from the first reporting period indicate that while sport remains an important form of physical activity throughout life, non-sport related physical activity becomes more important (i.e. in terms of frequency of participation) as we age. The single most popular physical activity for adults is walking (43%).  

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that around a quarter of the adult population (28%) reported participating in organised sport and physical recreation, while more than double that (60%) took part in non-organised activity. Among children, age 5 to 14 years, the ABS estimates that 60% participated in at least one organised sport activity outside of school hours during the 12 months prior to the survey.

Participation statistics for most national sporting organisations (NSOs) recognised by Sport Australia have stagnated over the past decade, in some cases even declined. However, other surveys indicate that 88% of Australian children participated in some form of non-organised physical activity (i.e. outside of school hours) at least once during the previous term and 73% participated at least three times per week. In general, the frequency of participation in organised sport activities tends to decrease with age. 

Participation surveys often have difficulty capturing the subtle distinctions between sports and ‘sports like’ activities. Organised sport is sanctioned through a network of NSOs, but many organisations; such as community groups as well as private providers; promote and deliver 'sport' programs. In addition, many individuals participate in both organised and non-organised sport and physical activity with different frequency patterns. Participation rates in aerobics, running, walking, along with gym membership, have all risen over the past decade. This demonstrates a trend toward participation outside the framework that has traditionally been provided by organised sports and their networks. In light of social preferences for a variety of physical activities, NSOs have begun to rethink the sport products they offer. 

  • Adults Market Segmentation for Sport Participation, Australian Sports Commission (2013). This report provides market segmentation information for adult sport and physical activity preferences. In line with changing consumer preferences, this study identified that sports will need to adapt their offerings if they intend to stay relevant to the Australian consumer. This research explores, identifies, and articulates the different motivations, attitudes, needs and barriers that influence decisions and behaviours in relation to sport participation, particularly club-based sport. This study is designed to help clubs understand the consumer market and more effectively target their approaches to particular segments.
  • Children Market Segmentation for Sport Participation, Australian Sports Commission (2013). This study describes the segments of the population among children aged five to 13 years, in terms of their attitudes to sport and physical activity and their attitudes to sports club membership. The study identified six consumer segments having different motivations and expectations.

More information can be found in the Clearinghouse for Sport portfolios, Market Segmentation – Adults, and Market Segmentation – Children.

It appears that both adults and children (at least a discernible segment of the population) elect to engage in sport as a social activity as well as a means to get fit, rather than joining a sporting organisation to get fit and play a sport. Many commercial health and fitness providers take advantage of the social nature of sport (or sport like activities) by offering organised activities, such as ‘spin classes’ and fitness activities having a strong ‘sport' related theme, such as cycling or running. These activities use various elements of ‘sport’, but offer them in a different context. Social interaction and peer support provide strong incentives for ongoing participation in group physical activities.

More information can be found in the Clearinghouse for Sport portfolio, Sport Participation in Australia.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) collaborated with the Australian Sports Commission to identify six megatrends likely to shape the Australian sports sector over the next 30 years. A megatrend represents an important pattern of social, economic or environmental change. The six megatrends in Australian sport are likely to be:

  1. A perfect fit – Individualised sport and fitness activities are on the rise. People are fitting sport into their increasingly busy and time-fragmented lifestyles to achieve personal health objectives.
  2. From extreme to mainstream – This megatrend captures the rise of lifestyle, adventure and alternative sports which are particularly popular with younger generations.
  3. More than sport – The broader benefits of sport are being increasingly recognised by governments, business and communities as a means of promoting physical, mental and social objectives. Sport will increasingly be used as a tool by a variety of organisations, both private and public.
  4. Everybody’s game – Australia and other countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) face an ageing population. This will change the types of sports we play and how we play them.
  5. New wealth, new talent – Population and income growth throughout Asia will create competition and new opportunities for Australia both on the sports field and in the sports business environment.
  6. Tracksuits to business suits – Market forces are likely to exert greater pressure on sport in the future. The cost of participating in organised sport is rising and this presents a barrier for many people.

Organised sports programs may intentionally target the development of social skills as an outcome of participation. This is one of the key benefits of organised sport – activities can be shaped and strategies implemented to maximise behavioural outcomes, including those not related to the sport’s performance outcome.

  • Youth sport programs: an avenue to foster positive youth development (PDF  - 135 KB), Fraser-Thomas J, Cote J and Deakin J, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, Volume 10, Number 1 (2005). The authors evaluate the potential of youth sport programs to foster positive development, while decreasing the risk of problem behaviours. Literature on both positive and negative outcomes of youth sport is reviewed. They also highlight the importance of sport program design, the appropriateness of incorporating the five ‘C’s of positive development (competence, confidence, character, connections, and compassion/caring). Given the concern about problem behaviours in youth, this paper highlights the benefits of organised youth sport, and the role that organised sports can play in contributing to the positive development of youth. However, positive outcomes are not automatic, organised sport programs need to be consciously designed to assure that youth are exposed to positive, rather than negative, experiences and environments.
  • Can sport help develop life skills? Holt N, Wise Education Review (blog). The balance of evidence suggests that children can learn life skills by playing sport, but only when sport is delivered in appropriate ways. Research consistently shows the importance of social interactions with coaches, parents, and peers which are necessary to teach and reinforce life skills. The emotion-laden context of sport and the excitement and challenge it can provide present ideal ‘teachable moments’ for children to learn skills such as self-esteem, emotional regulation, problem-solving, and goal attainment in an environment that is very different to the classroom.
  • An interpretive analysis of life skills associated with sport participation (PDF  - 105 KB), Holt N, Tamminen K, Tink L and Black D, Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, Volume 1, Number 2 (2009). This study examined how people may learn life skills through their involvement in regular competitive sport programs. The authors present three main interpretations of participants’ experiences based around the idea that sport itself does not teach life skills; rather, social interactions are central to how people learn life skills. First, participants learned social life skills through interactions with peers in sport contexts and these skills were retained into their adult lives. Second, participants’ parents used sport to reinforce values relating to sportsmanship and work ethic. Third, coaches emphasised individual effort and teamwork. In particular, peer interactions appear to be the most meaningful factor in acquiring and retaining social skills as a result of youth sport participation.
  • Girls just wanna have fun: a process evaluation of a female youth-driven physical activity-based life skills program (PDF  - 278 KB), Bean C, Forneris T and Halsall T, SpringerPlus open access journal, Volume 3 (2014). Integrating a positive youth development framework into physical activity programs is intended to develop both physical and psychosocial skills. The ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ program was designed in response to increased calls for physical activity programs for female youth that are theoretically-grounded in teaching life skills and empowering female youth. This paper presents case studies supported by interviews with program leaders and participants. The case studies indicate that program goals were attained using physical activities to facilitate relationships and increase opportunities for leadership by girls.

Non-organised sport has also been shown to enhance the same social skills of participants. However, sport in a social context does not rely upon the policies and strategies of organisational control to influence behaviour. Without the significant influence of coaches, officials or administrators the social outcomes derived from sport are acquired intrinsically.

  • Sport participation and loneliness in adolescents: the mediating role of perceived social competence (abstract), Haugen T, Safvenbom R and Ommundsen Y, Current Psychology, Volume 32, Issue 2 (2013). This study looked at a sample of over 2,000 adolescents in Norway to investigate whether perceived social competence mediated the relationship between sport participation and loneliness. Findings suggest that sport participation among adolescents can contain important social components that help meet young peoples’ social needs and expectations, which in turn may prevent feelings of loneliness.
  • An examination of social psychological factors predicting skiers’ skill, participation frequency and spending behaviors (abstract), Hungenberg E, Gould J and Daly S, Journal of Sport & Tourism, Volume 18, Issue 4 (2013). This study of 236 recreational skiers from two Colorado (USA) resorts found that the seriousness of participants toward their activity, family influence, and adventure seeking variables significantly explain the frequency of participation and acquired skill across all age groups. Participants who were the most serious about their skiing also spent more on equipment and their participation in the sport.
  • An examination of the relationships between motivation, involvement and intention to continuing participation among recreational skiers (PDF  - 131 KB), Kouthouris C, International Journal of Sport Management, Recreation and Tourism, Volume 4 (2009). This study of 224 recreational skiers supported the hypothesis that intention to participate was predicted by motivation to participate. The significant motivating factors for these recreational skiers were: physical fitness, enjoyment, skill development, competency (mastery of skills), escape from pressure, excitement, and association with family and friends.
  • Empathy in sports, exercise and the performing arts (PDF  - 302 KB), Sevdalis V and Raab M, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Volume 15 (2014). This review of literature provides a summary of the main findings from empirical studies that used empathy measurements in the domains of sports, exercise, and the performing arts. Differences in empathic tendencies have been found repeatedly to be influenced by the gender of participants. Females valued the interpersonal dimensions of playing sport more highly than males. Empathic associations acquired through sports participation appeared to enhance prosocial behaviour by promoting positive attitudes, such as helping. Thus, research on empathy in the domains of sport, exercise, and the performing arts suggests a wide range of antecedents and consequences of empathy.

The personal benefits of sport participation and other social forms of physical activity are well documented, they are delivered in many settings (schools, sports clubs, recreational activities, etc.) and under varying degrees of structure (highly organised to informal social environments). Research targeting social sport environments confirms many of the same findings of research conducted in organised sport settings.

  • A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport (PDF  - 499 KB), Eime R, Young J, Harvey J, Charity M and Payne W, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, published online (2013). This paper first presents the results of a systematic review of the psychological and social health benefits of participation in sport by children and adolescents. Thirty studies met the review criteria and these studies represented a mixture of settings that included both organised and non-organised programs. Information from this review has been used to develop a conceptual model. The evidence suggests that community sport participation, as a form of leisure time physical activity, is beneficial for children and adolescents in relation to psychological and social health outcomes.
  • Epistemology of health, quality of life, social connectedness and the contribution of sports for subjective wellbeing, Reis A, Sport Science Review, Volume 20, Issue 3-4 (2011). This article reviews the literature, providing a wider understanding of the association between sport and physical activity and health. A number of studies stress the importance of sporting activity in creating a social environment that can provide opportunities for social support and for the achievement of communal and personal goals in the group scenario.
  • Examining group walks in nature and multiple aspects of well-being: a large-scale study (PDF  - 875 KB), Marselle M, Irvine K and Warber S, Ecopsychology, (September 2014). Outdoor walking groups promote the benefits of social interaction, connections with nature, and physical activity. This study sought to identify the mental, emotional, and social wellbeing benefits from participating in group walks in nature. A sample of 1,516 adults belonging to either ‘Nature Group Walkers’ or non-walkers were compared. Controlling for covariates, this research found that participants in walking groups suffered significantly less depression and perceived stress, as well as having enhanced feelings of wellbeing. This study identifies the mental and emotional wellbeing benefits derived from participation in group walks in nature and supports the potential mental health benefits of outdoor group walk programs.
  • Self-concept, attitude and satisfaction benefits of outdoor adventure activities: The case for recreational kayaking, Nichols D and Fines L, Journal of Leisurability, Volume 22, Number 2 (1995). This study examined the effects of a recreational kayak program on the self-concept, leisure satisfaction and attitudes of a small sample of traumatically brain injured adults. Often recreational therapy is seen as somewhat secondary to medical and occupational therapies, but the findings of this study support the notion that leisure satisfaction is an important component in the lives of adults with a traumatic brain injury and can be enhanced by the opportunity to pursue physical recreation activities.

More information can be found in the Clearinghouse for Sport portfolios: Sport in Education and Preventive Health, Sport and Physical Activity.

In addition to personal benefits derived from participation in sport (organised or social), there are wider social benefits derived from all forms of sport and physical activity that have a positive impact upon communities. Governments recognise the contribution that social sport, active recreation, and personal physical activity can make to the community environment.

Physical Activity and Building Stronger Communities (PDF  - 205 KB), Chau J, NSW Premier’s Council for Active Living (2007). This report reviews the role of physical activity in building stronger communities. It outlines the health benefits of physical activity; but more importantly, it describes how participation in physical activity may help foster social capital and encourage the development of strong and healthy communities. A number of areas are explored, including: (1) the role of sport in supporting community building, particularly in strengthening residents’ commitment to their neighbourhood or local area; (2) the role of sport in developing social capital, building mutual interest and altruistic behaviour, including volunteering; (3) the role of sport in promoting pro-social and diminishing anti-social behaviour, and; (4) encouraging groups with historically low levels of sport participation to become involved, with perceived benefits in promoting social harmony.

In 2008, the NSW Premier’s Council for Active Living prepared guidelines for the use of physical activities for community development purposes. These guidelines address the following key dimensions about program intent and outcomes:

  • targeting specific groups who are less likely to participate;
  • cultural specificity;
  • links to other social policies;
  • building social networks, particularly at the neighbourhood level;
  • promoting participation and social interaction rather than excellence;
  • providing social support (i.e. friendly, enjoyable, and personally rewarding activities);
  • using local resources;
  • providing opportunities to develop new social norms;
  • fostering partnerships between local organisations;
  • strengthening local networks;
  • building capacity and sustainability;
  • considering the role of the built environment, in terms of facilities, safety, and opportunities for informal activities;
  • providing regular feedback to participants, and;
  • developing safer environments.

Active Healthy Communities (PDF  - 1.2 MB), Queensland Government and the Heart Foundation of Australia (2010). This is a resource guide for Local Government, providing ideas to assist councils in creating an environment that supports active, healthy communities and lifestyles.

Building Health through Sport, VicHealth action plan 2010-13 (PDF  - 2.2 MB), Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (2010). Sport can be used as a vehicle to communicate about priority health issues.

Increasing Physical Activity in Local Government Communities: An integrated approach (PDF  - 1.2 MB), Government of Western Australia (2010). Local Government has an imperative to provide healthy and safe communities and is well positioned to take a holistic and proactive approach in the provision of public facilities and programs that promote physical activity.

Healthy by Design: a guide to planning and designing environments for active living in Tasmania (PDF  - 2.2 MB), Government of Tasmania and Heart Foundation Tasmania (2010). As a community we often underestimate the importance of creating opportunities within our environment to improve our physical and mental wellbeing. Well planned and designed communities that increase the ability of people to interact, walk or cycle to shops, schools, parks, etc. contribute to the creation of physically active and socially vibrant community.

More information can be found in the Clearinghouse for Sport portfolio, Sport for Community Development.

Sport and recreation organisations have historically catered for a youth market, but in response to future trends and an ageing population, new markets for organised sport may emerge. However, older adults (over the age of 60) are less likely to participate in organised sport; yet many older Australians remain active, participating in a wide variety of activities (both individual and social) associated with an active lifestyle. Studies consistently show that participation in physical activity reduces symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, and this is particularly relevant to adults who are retired from the workforce and seeking stimulation in the form of physical activity as well as psychosocial interaction with their peers.

State/Territory Governments are responding by encouraging sporting organisations to offer programs for mature age persons, as well as encouraging social/recreational sport and physical activity for this age group.

  • Physical activity patterns of Australian adults (PDF  - 284 KB), Armstrong T, Bauman A and Davies J, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2000).
  • Targeting Mature Age Participants (PDF  - 1.1 MB), report by the South Australian Government, Office of Recreation and Sport (2004).
  • SilverSport, Western Australia, Department of Sport and Recreation. This program provides grants for seniors, so that cost is less of a barrier to participation in sport and recreational activities. 
  • Staying active in the NORTH (PDF  - 12.3 MB) and Staying active in the SOUTH (PDF  - 7.0 MB), sport, recreation, and physical activity opportunities for older adults in Tasmania, Sport and Recreation Tasmania (2013). This publication lists local organisations providing programs and support for sport and recreational activities targeting mature age Tasmanians. Examples of programs outside the State Sporting Association domain include: yoga, walking, tai chi, pilates, fishing and gardening.

The Heart Foundation promotes walking, cycling and active travel as a means of encouraging older persons to be more physically active, as well as realising the social benefits these activities deliver.

More information can be found in the Clearinghouse for Sport portfolios, Active Transport, and Mature-age Sport and Physical Activity.  

Economic activity generated by sport, in all its manifestations, including social/recreational activity, is estimated to be about 2% of most western nations’ gross domestic product (GDP). [source: ‘The dollars and sense of keeping fit’, Phil Ruthven, Business Review Weekly, 09 April 2013] Because the participation rate in non-organised activities is so much greater than organised sports participation, a significant amount of this economic activity is underpinned by social sport. Sportswear, sports equipment, gym memberships, and public infrastructure (parks, open spaces, cycling or walking tracks, etc.) contribute to the total.

Because the economic contribution of sport (and ‘sport like’ recreational and social activities) is so multi-faceted, it’s virtually impossible to determine which of the many estimates is most accurate. Different assumptions, models, and analysis techniques are used to estimate the economic contribution of all forms of sport and physically active recreational and social activities.

The organisational structure of sport in the United Kingdom is similar to Australia’s. In addition, government policies targeting increased physical activity (also including the promotion of sport) are part of preventive health and social objectives. The role of social sport, and its contribution to government policy objectives, has gained momentum in recent years.
Are sports and physical activity communities a better way of getting people more active? Sports Marketing Network, United Kingdom, blog posted 16 February 2015. This article discusses the popularity of ‘informal’, social networks engaging in sport; they are currently referred to as Sport and Physical Activity Communities (SAPACs). Because many people prefer to do their sport in a structured club environment, the existing system of NSOs, regional associations, and clubs will continue to exist. Others prefer to go to the gym, go for a run or a swim, or play some pick-up basketball or football when they want to and have the time and motivation to participate.

There is strong growth in the number of community groups established to get people together on an informal basis to enjoy their sport and physical activity. These networks, SAPACs, are generated through social media; they don’t have a constitution, policies, or a governing body. The significance, impact, and sustainability of SAPACs depends upon their local community engagement. Various forms of ‘street-sport’ have become popular and SAPACs can be set-up using Facebook, these programs are usually self-funded. However, recognition as a sport provider and generating income to hire facilities is often problematic when SAPACs become large. Established sports bodies welcome the outcomes (i.e. increased participation and interest in a sport) of SAPACs, but may find their independence threatening.
Community groups that leverage physical activity as a means of achieving social outcomes have also sprung up in recent years. These organisations may receive government support because of their social and community health objectives, they are often loosely linked to social sport.

  • Run Dem Crew (RDC). This is a group of individuals with a passion for running and the exchange of ideas; it is not a running club. They meet every Tuesday to run and explore the streets of London. RDC shares the running related experiences of its participants through various forms of social media.
  • GoodGym. This not-for-profit company was established in 2009 by individuals who felt frustrated with ‘normal’ gyms. In 2012 it received support from the London Legacy Development Company to expand its presence. GoodGym works with professional trainers and coaches to bring activity to persons who may feel isolated or marginalised within the community and uses physical activity to provide support for community welfare projects. GoodGym has entered into a number of partnerships with local government authorities to deliver fitness programs with a community building objective; they do this by: (1) organising running groups to do manual labour for community charities and similar organisations; (2) running groups who make social visits to isolated or older people, and; (3) running groups who perform various physical tasks for disadvantaged people, such as clearing gardens and doing domestics jobs.
  • WellFit Glossop. This is a local organisation (similar to GoodGym) that works in various parts of Glossop to deliver friendly, social and mostly gentle physical activity sessions for people who want to get a little bit of movement into their daily routine. WellFit Glossop receives government support through national lottery funding. WellFit delivers a program called ‘Walking Football’ to engage primarily older persons who want to play football for fitness, fun and friendship.

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  • Active healthy communities: A resource package for local government to create supportive environments for physical activity and healthy eating, Queensland Government and National Heart Foundation of Australia, Queensland Branch (2010). Behavioural changes towards a healthier lifestyle need to occur with a minimum amount of effort for the individual; the healthy choice needs to be the easy choice. Councils have an important role in shaping healthy local environments through their roles in planning, development, provision, and management of facilities and services.
  • Bringing communities together through sport and culture (PDF  - 4.8 MB), Department for Culture, Media and Sport, United Kingdom, and Sport England (2004). This publication is aimed at practitioners across the UK engaged in the delivery of sport and cultural opportunities. It will help them understand how culture and sport can stimulate community engagement.
  • Building enhanced collaboration between recreation and sport (PDF  - 2.0 MB), Canadian Sport for Life (2013). The quality of the relationship between municipal recreation and the sport delivery system varies between communities and among sports in the same community. This paper outlines the broad roles of municipal recreation and how it can and does support sport; the key shifts in sport policy and focus; the nature of the partnership and common challenges; and key areas in which collaborative approaches may take place. Community facilities offer opportunities for persons who wish to enjoy sport outside the sports system. Examples of this are drop-in basketball for youth not involved in school or club programs, after-school programs at recreation centres for team activities, and programs aimed at skill development and play for young females who may feel uncomfortable in a competitive environment.
  • Cycling & Health: What’s the evidence? (PDF  - 3.7 MB), Cavill N and Davis A, Cycling England (2007). In addition to the well documented personal health and fitness benefits of cycling, many social benefits are the result of greater participation in cycling and improved cycle-friendly infrastructure in communities.
  • Physical activity promotion in socially disadvantaged groups: principles for action (PDF - 2.1 MB), World Health Organisation (WHO) (2013). The promotion of physical activity has increasingly been recognised in Europe as a priority for public health action and many countries have responded through the development of policies and interventions supporting physical activity. Because evidence suggests that low levels of physical activity are often found in socially disadvantaged groups, a key component of intervention programs is physical activity promotion in disadvantaged groups, with a focus on the role of healthy environments.
  • Planning for the provision of leisure and recreation in Australia (PDF  - 1.9 MB), Marriot K, Sport and Recreation Tasmania (2010). Research indicates that recreational, cultural and leisure activities have a major positive influence on personal health and community wellbeing. Recent years have seen a far greater recognition of non-competitive social and recreational activities and most importantly, the critical contribution which leisure and recreation make to the health and wellbeing in the community.
  • Uncovering the social value of sport (PDF  - 1.6 MB), Sport & Recreation Alliance, United Kingdom (2016). Sport and recreation deliver huge benefits to communities as a result of the involvement of millions of participants, volunteers, coaches, staff and spectators. The stated ambition of the Alliance is to make the contribution of the sport and recreation sector well known to government as a ‘go to’ place for solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges. The STEP framework (i.e. STEP, social-thinking-emotional-physical) can be used to highlight the potential power of sport and recreation to impact upon society.
  • What Sport Can Do, the true sport report (PDF  - 3.0 MB), Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (2008). This report provides a wide and compelling array of evidence that ethical principles and values have a place as part of ‘good sport’. Community sport is one of our most valuable public assets. There is now evidence that sport’s benefits go far beyond the positive health effects of physical activity that are well understood and documented. A substantial body of research points to community sport’s fundamental role as a primary generator of social capital and social benefits across a broad spectrum of societal goals, including: education, child and youth development, social inclusion, crime prevention, economic development, and environmental sustainability. No other domain of community life has demonstrated sport’s capacity to connect people.


  • Exercise at 65 and Beyond, Batt M, Tanji J and Borjesson M, Sports Medicine, published online (March 2013). The authors set out to demonstrate the utility of regular exercise for this potentially vulnerable age-group. The scientifically verified effects of regular physical activity in the elderly include, but are not limited to, reduced cardiovascular disease, reduction of anxiety and depression, reduced risk of osteoporosis and fewer falls and injuries from falls. Recent research on the over 65 age-group has also highlighted the benefit of exercise on the function of the brain and cognitive ability. Population studies suggest that aerobic exercise may improve cognition, auditory and visual attention and reduce the incidence of dementia.
  • Changes from 1986 to 2006 in reasons for liking leisure-time physical activity among adolescents, Wold B,, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports (published online 29 July 2015). The reasons why adolescents participate in physical activity may have changed over time, in accordance with attitudes and social norms. The aim of this study was to examine changes in self-reported reasons for liking leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) and their association with self-reported LTPA over a 20-year period in adolescents from Finland, Norway and Wales. In all three countries, 13-year-olds in 2006 tended to report higher importance on achievement and social reasons than their counterparts in 1986. There were no significant changes in the cohort group's attitudes about the health benefits of LTPA. The authors suggest that interventions and educational efforts to encourage more LTPA could be improved by an increased focus on sport as a social activity.
  • Leisure-related social support and self-determination as buffers of stress-illness (abstract), Iso-Ahola S and Park C, Journal of Leisure Research, Volume 28, Number 3 (1996). Data from 252 adult subjects was used to test whether leisure-generated social support (i.e. friendship) acted as a buffer to the adverse effects of life stress. Results confirmed the importance of social support derived from participation in leisure recreational activities and suggested that it's the interaction with friends that buffers the adverse effects of stress.
  • Mental health and physical activity among adolescents (PDF  - 3.7 MB), Veitch J, Hume C, Timperio A, Ball K, Salmon J and Crawford D, Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research, Deakin University (2009). This study sought to examine associations between symptoms of depression and physical activity, organised sport and television viewing among adolescents. It also sought to examine whether depression itself influences levels of physical activity. This study found that neither physical activity nor organised sport were predictive of the likelihood of developing depressive symptoms. However, girls who reported symptoms of depression watched significantly more television.
  • Participation in physical activities by older Australians: a review of the social psychological benefits and constraints (abstract), Patterson I and Chang M, Australasian Journal of Ageing, Volume 18, Issue 4 (1999). This paper reviews both Australian and international studies that focus on the psychological and social benefits of physical activity among older adults. The most commonly identified psychological benefit of physical activity is the improvement of mood state, as well as improved sleep patterns, reduced stress and anxiety, and improved self-confidence. The literature supports the notion that physical activity serves an important role for older persons in terms of regular social interaction and friendships that are in turn related to continued participation in physical/social activities.
  • Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: a review of reviews (abstract), Biddle S and Asare M, British Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 45, Number 11 (2011). This paper synthesises the results of reviews investigating the relationship between physical activity and depression, anxiety, self-esteem and cognitive functioning in children and adolescents. This review found that the association between physical activity and mental health in young people is very evident, but research designs were often weak and demonstrated effects were small to moderate.
  • Physical exercise and psychological wellbeing: a critical review (PDF  - 234 KB), Scully D, Kremer J, Meade M, Graham R and Dudgeon K, British Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 32 (1998). This paper outlines the research evidence, focusing on the relationship between physical exercise and depression, anxiety, mood state, self-esteem, and body image.
  • Play and work: An introduction to sport and organization, Vermeulena J, Kosterb M, Loosa E and van Slobbea M, Culture and Organization, Volume 22, Number 3 (2016). This article provides an introduction to a series of papers appearing in the journal Culture and Organization which look at the way sport is used as a tool for social organisation. Sport as a social practice has become relevant in many different fields, such as health, economy, politics, education, work and leisure. The importance of sport transcends the confines of the sports field because sport involves not only organisation, but also organising. Sport becomes a social platform for organising collective efforts, performance and excellence. Professional and commercial sport have become big business, and the economic and political dimensions of sport are often intertwined. Sport also has a playful side that emphasises the activity itself, the pleasure of taking part, and the joy and friendship it entails. We thus perceive sport as both work and play and this gives social scientists an opportunity to rethink social relationships in the context of how sport is organised.
  • Recreation and children and youth living in poverty: barriers, benefits and success stories: Literature review and analysis (PDF  - 330 KB), Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (2001). This review categorised and summarised the findings from the literature into broad areas covering socio-economic status; family, gender, ethnic minorities, and homelessness. Exercise and physical activity has been linked to improved self-concept and self-esteem, reduced depressive symptoms, decreased stress and anxiety, improved self-acceptance, changes in anti-social behaviour, and enhanced psychological wellbeing and sense of competence.
  • The social impacts of sport and physical recreation: An annotated bibliography (PDF - 337 KB), Recreation and Sport Industry Statistical Group, Australian Bureau of Statistics (2001).
  • Sport participation across national contexts: A multilevel investigation of individual and systemic influences on adult sport participation (PDF  - 268 KB), Lim S, Warner S, Dixon M, Berg B, Kim C and Newhouse-Bailey M, European Sport Management Quarterly, Volume 11, Number 3 (2011). This research looked at adult patters of sport participation in three countries; Netherlands, United States and the Republic of Korea. The main themes that emerged related to adult sport participation were life-course and transitional dynamics, motivational differences, and sport delivery system impacts. The current study found that delivery systems that are more readily accessible or predictable and those that create social opportunities for adults may be more successful in increasing adult sport participation.
  • What about sport? A public health perspective on leisure-time physical activity, Berg B, Warner S and Das B, Sport Management Review, Volume 18, Issue 1 (2015). Using a case study and interview approach, this research from the United States explored the assumptions and presumed knowledge of adults who participated in physical activity programs that were intended to deliver health benefits. The results reveal that instead of the commonly emphasised benefits of physical health or personal appearance (body weight reduction), the primary outcomes sought by participants were hedonic rewards (satisfaction, having fun) and opportunities for social interaction. ‘Sport’ as defined by formal or informal activity has been largely forgotten in preventive health campaigns that tend to feature physical activity such as aerobics, gym programs, and walking / biking as active transport. Because of its elite focus, sport in a social context has been absent from preventive health and physical activity campaigns in the U.S. Even when policymakers believe that sport has merit, they do not consider its utility. Sport programs can realise benefits beyond physical wellness. Program planners cannot presume that the mere provision of sport is all that is necessary to realise benefits of participation; indeed, all public health programs must guard against the idea that merely providing opportunities will get people more physically active. The results of this study indicate that hedonic rewards are attractive and relevant to a broad spectrum of people, but due to changes in age or physical ability many people feel intimidated at the prospect of restarting their involvement in sport. The opportunity for social interaction and the sense of community that developed during participation was the other most frequently cited reason for engaging in sport over other leisure-time activities. The results also point to the need to better emphasise these social relationships within programs, as a means of encouraging people to sustain their involvement.


  • The community network: an Aboriginal community football club bringing people together (abstract), Thorpe A, Anders W and Rowley K, Australian Journal of Primary Health, Volume 20, Number 4 (2014). The aim of the present study was to understand the impact of an Aboriginal community sporting team and its environment on the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of young Aboriginal men. The complex nature of social connections and the strength of Aboriginal community networks in sports settings were evident. Social reasons were just as important as individual health reasons for participation; social and community connections were an important mechanism for maintaining and strengthening cultural values and identity. Aboriginal sports teams have the potential to have a profound impact on the health of Aboriginal people, especially its players, by fostering a safe and culturally strengthening environment and encompassing a significant positive social hub for the Aboriginal community.
  • Global recommendations on physical activity for health, (PDF  - 129 KB), World Health Organization (2011).
  • Pushing casual sport to the margins threatens cities’ social cohesion, Amanda Wise, Associate professor, Macquarie University,, The Conversation, (30 April 2018). Park soccer, social cricket and street basketball bring the public spaces of our cities to life. For many of the most marginalised communities, access to public space for sport is crucial for developing and maintaining a sense of belonging. But as populations grow and competition for playing fields, courts and parks becomes fiercer, many communities are losing access to their sporting spaces. 
  • Social–cognitive and perceived environment influences associated with physical activity in older Australians, Booth M, Owen N, Bauman A, Clavisi O and Leslie E, Preventive Medicine, Volume 31, Issue 1 (2000). This study attempts to identify social–cognitive and perceived environmental influences associated with physical activity participation among older (age 65 and over) Australians. Social support, facility access, and neighbourhood safety all appear to be significant factors in determining participation.  
  • SportEd. This foundation was established as a direct result of the legacy of the 2012 London Olympic Games. As a membership organisation it offers financial support and business mentoring to community and voluntary groups who are focused on securing social development through access to sport. The SportEd website provides access to various project reports and research.  
  • Theorizing sport as social intervention: a view from the grassroots, Hartmann D, Quest, Volume 55, Issue 2 (2003). This paper presents a case study that is based upon several years of intensive fieldwork by a Chicago teacher, coach, and grassroots activist. This paper examines the use of grassroots sport to keep urban youth in and interested in school and education; and the possibilities and challenges of using sport as a mode of social outreach and intervention.

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