It’s now time for us to win gold at turning inspiration into wider sports participation

Sport has the power to captivate. It can make us dream. It can make us cry. It can even give us something to talk about when we’ve run out of things to say.

But until now, however brilliantly we’ve delivered ‘success by design’ at an elite level and hypnotized the country during the recent Olympics in Rio, it doesn’t necessarily make us, well, play sport.

A glance at Sport England’s annual reporting which highlights the nation’s collective ‘physical activity’ shows that sports participation across the UK did spike post London 2012 but that it only represented a marginal gain before we curled back onto our sofas.

So if we have found the magic formula to create Olympic success, why haven’t we yet found a way of getting everyone else off their backsides?

Watching Andy Murray win his high octane duel with del Potro; Adam Peaty smash world records in the pool; or the GB women’s hockey team snatch victory from the Dutch on penalties made me twitch with an anticipation to get out there and play some sport. But it seems I’m in the minority.

And whilst I am loudly applauding the ‘switch off’ of ITV channels over the weekend and the throwing open of doors to sporting venues across the UK as part of the National Lottery’s I am Team GB campaign, in our haste to encourage I believe we must think more scientifically about our approach.

Telling people to ‘be more active’ just doesn’t seem to be cutting it, beyond those who are already enthusiastically listening.

As more of our communications become direct to audience through social and digital channels, there is an increasing need to be an expert in how people think, behave and make decisions. We need to understand the unconscious drivers of behaviour as well as the conscious.

We worked with the LTA, the body responsible for tennis in the UK, earlier this year on a drive to encourage young kids to pick up a racket and give the sport a try following the Great Britain team’s historic success in the Davis Cup at the end of 2015.

Rather than simply use the team’s phenomenal success and star player to entice five to eight year old boys and girls up and down the country to play, the campaign chose to highlight some of the more basic pleasures of tennis such as friendship, family and whacking a ball.

There was also an offer of 10,000 free lessons timed for the school holidays and the thrust of the communications was aimed at an audience we knew would be the most influential in driving registration - mums - through a partnership with Britmums. The kids who got to keep a free tennis racket were the ones who stuck with the lessons (rewarding effort) rather than those who simply did well (rewarding talent).

Within a couple of weeks of launch, the scheme had such a positive take up that an extra 5,000 places were made available.

This formula follows classic behavioural science techniques. The key messengers for tennis campaign were the mums themselves.  This worked because the weight we give to information depends on our automatic reactions to the perceived authority and similarity to us of that source.

It is thinking and campaigns like this that have led to the creation of a new offer at Hill + Knowlton Strategies which embraces behavioural science.

Rio Role Models

So, with a nation currently captivated by Team GB and sports governing bodies seeking to capitalise on their medal success, now is the moment to convert inspiration to perspiration.  To do this, the messages and messengers need to be right.

I am Team GB’s ‘biggest ever sports day’ at the weekend will have undoubtedly helped to tempt more people who wouldn’t normally exercise to give it a try, but it will have also created more opportunities for those already involved in various sporting pursuits. 

The government was quick to voice its displeasure after data suggested the growth in participation that followed London's successful hosting of the 2012 Olympics was stalling, with almost six out of 10 adults playing no sport in a typical week. 

In a new strategy unveiled earlier this year, they announced they will spend £250m over four years as it targets the least active groups: typically women, the disabled and those from low socio-economic backgrounds as well as dedicating funding to children from the age of five.

Great news; but how they target these groups will be crucial to realising positive, sustainable results that don’t have us bungee roping back to our sofas by the time the glow of our most successful ever overseas Olympic medal haul has faded.


Anthony Scammell

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search