Opinion: Spectators are as important as athletes to develop a sporting nation

Only in Britain could we end up having a debate about success and its ongoing legacy that sounds both ambitious (let’s seize the moment) and a like a moan (well we won’t do as well again)! Of course it is right that we start the debate now and ride the momentum whilst sport is on the front pages and the nation is discussing more than football.

Of course, participation is the key goal but evidence shows that the presence of an Olympics alone does not create a huge change in a nation’s physical activity. But if you just concentrate the debate around the athletes, I think you miss the other important dynamic that could create a strong base for our sporting future – and that is the spectators.

We are used to seeing American TV that shows high school games with packed bleachers of townsfolk rooting for their team and watching live sport in action.  It is a culture that I have envied. My logic has always been that surely if  we watched sport more regularly we would be more receptive to trying stuff out.  But the importance of watching is greater than that.

Seeing families and friends enjoy watching sport together at this Olympics says to me that watching live sport is a worthwhile activity in its own right. It could be a family day out, a summer holiday activity, a night out with friends.  We need to support sports clubs and leagues to make their games or meets a leisure destination.  It is not easy to find out where and when sport is on and how you can watch it. We need to promote watching as much as doing.

The more we watch and see success in action, the more we would be encouraged to do.  We all need to see something a few times before we feel brave enough to give it a try, whatever your age.  You don’t even have to be an athlete to make a difference, as a spectator member of your team you are inside the club and can widely encourage others to join in and participate.

Bums on seats, chatter online and town pride in more than football would force the media to report and show sport differently. They cannot afford to ignore the momentum of people and our desire to see how our teams do when we can’t be there.

If we do this we would also begin to create a more lively sporting market.  We are not talking Premiership football levels here, but unless we start there will be nothing to grow. More visible spectatorship would encourage a greater range of sponsors keen to support local teams upwards. Gate receipts, however modest, could help diversify funding of sports infrastructure and athletes.

I think we will miss the biggest trick of all if we don’t have a long-term campaign to change and develop how we watch sport in this country Although the arts sector is not quite the same – much of creativity needs an audience – they have had investment to look at how to boost, sustain and diversify audiences. Sport could do the same and I would like Sport England and the Government to support it.

We need to fund sport spectator development in the UK so it becomes parts of the fabric of our community and sporting life.  We need website and listings that tell us where to get our sporting fix.  Big screens to watch together and events around local, regional and national competitions.  Why can’t we bring together various passions, such as street-food, live entertainment and sporting fixtures?  We need money and space to try out ways to pull revenue through the gate. All levels of government  need to promote pride in our local team.

Spectators of the country unite and let’s make sure we never need cheer alone!

* Laura Willoughby MBE is a Lib Dem member in Islington

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Dean 14th Aug '12 - 5:35pm

    Yes they are! In person as well as via the TV and/or internet.

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