Concern over Sport England figures

If you believe Nigel Wood, this week’s Sport England participation figures, which revealed a sharp fall in the number of people playing rugby league, should not be a cause for alarm.

Yet many of those involved in the game at grassroots level will almost certainly disagree with the Rugby Football League (RFL) chief executive’s version of the truth.

Talk to the players, coaches, volunteers and administrations of community clubs and they will tell you about the uphill battle they face recruiting and retaining players.

More than ever, rival sports are in fierce competition with each other to grab a slice of what limited recreational time people have.

And according to the body in charge of distributing public money to sustain and increase sports participation, rugby league is not winning that battle.

For the period between October 2013 and October 2014, the Active People Survey found 32,500 people played rugby league for 30 minutes at least once a week.

That figure was 53,500 for the previous 12 months: a drop of 21,000.

Rugby league is not alone: Overall the number of people regularly playing sport is down by 125,000 and other sports have seen sizeable declines including swimming, the most popular sport in terms of participation.

What has been interesting is the differing responses from governing bodies.

Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) head Edward Lord said the figures highlighted a ‘major issue’ and his organisation would be ‘putting all its resources’ into finding out the cause for the fall, and working to reverse it.

Meanwhile, the RFL and Wood have essentially dismissed the findings of the survey outright, insisting its plans and programmes are working.

It’s an ostrich-like response and one that will annoy and frustrate many at the coalface of the sport.

It’s a stance based on the justification of ‘the Active People figures are calculated by extrapolating data from a sample survey but the RFL’s own metrics, which provide a more definitive measure, are based on actual registered player numbers’,

“Our analytics shows that we had more rugby league teams, and more people playing rugby league, in 2014 than ever before across all derivatives of the game and there can be no doubts that we are heading in the right direction,” Wood said in the RFL’s response to the Sport England research.

“The outstanding development work that is taking place across the sport is recognised by Sport England as being both innovative and effective and we remain committed to introducing as many people as possible to the joys of rugby league.

“The offers we have in place such as Play Touch Rugby League are being well received by new players across the country and I am confident the sport will continue to grow as we enter an exciting new era.”

Effectively then, Wood and the RFL are asking people to disregard Sport England’s findings, which are linked to future funding, altogether because its own figures are more reliable.

It’s true the Active People Survey cannot be regarded as fact. It’s undertaken through random telephone interviews and the marginal nature of rugby league means figures can become warped. However, its vast sample size means it is considered to be a dependable guide.

Wood’s comments refer to registered players, yet being registered does not mean being a regular player, which is what this suvey is all about.

Having more formats of the game such as Play Touch Rugby League and Tag Rugby League does encourage new people into the sport and I’m sure the figure for these growth areas, which is where funding has been funnelled, are impressive.

However, if that comes at the expense of the traditional format then questions need to be asked and those in power need to be challenged, not simply allowed to brush it off.

The new Sky Try initiative, announced today, aims to deliver rugby league to 700,000 people over the next seven years, which will go at least someway to putting these figures right.

Perhaps that was why Wood could be so dismissive of the figures, such is his confidence in the future success of the Sky Try initiative.


What is key though, is getting more young people involved in the game to safeguard the sport’s future.

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