Dr Dan Parnell



August 2016

Reflections on participation: Social or sporting capital?

This article was originally published here. 

ConnectSport Research Director, Dr Dan Parnell, of the Business School at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Louise Morby, Senior Lecturer in Sport Development at Leeds Beckett University and Equity Lead at the UK Sport Development and Research Network (UKSDN), provide some reflections on a recent conference focused on participation in sport and physical activity.

It is the end of the academic year and both Dan and Louise were at last free from teaching, marking and admin in general. The immediate items on their agenda were graduation, research and planning for next year (as well as some much-needed annual leave!) so it begs the question why are they attending conferences?

Dan said: “It’s really important that we take time out to focus on the purpose of our research and what it can achieve for society. Attending conferences offers me a chance to stop and think about what I have been doing, and think ahead to what I am going to do and with who.

“As such, when the opportunity to listen and discuss sport participation and social capital with Professor Fred Coalter (Visiting professor at Leeds Beckett University and the Free University of Brussels) and Nick Rowe (Visiting research fellow, Leeds Beckett University and former Head of Strategy and Research at Sport England) appeared, it was a no-brainer.

“As part of the UKSDN’s ‘Conversations with a Purpose’ seminar series, the event offered extensive insight from a leading researcher and expert with 20-plus years’ experience, and commissioner research within the industry. It clearly had a purpose – and I wanted in.”

Louise, who combines her academic work with her role as Equity Lead at the UKSDN, provided some more background on the Network.

She said:Although a new name to most, the UKSDN has existed since 2008, but was formally known as the European Sport Development Network.

“As Dan has said, the most important thing to some researchers is that their work is valuable to those within industry. In response to this, the Network was established in 2008, to build bridges between academia and sports industry practitioners. We are quietly proud that the Network has organised several successful conferences, published extensively in academic and professional journals and engaged in a variety of networking, advocacy and influencing work relating to sport development policy and practice in the UK.

“The Network is dynamic, flexible, inclusive – and growing. Whilst we have distinctive leads (my role is focused on equity) and extensive links, we encourage practitioners, managers and researchers to reach out and get involved. You can read more about the Network and our forthcoming conference here.


Nick Rowe kicked off the conference by presenting his work on ‘sporting capital’. Nick offered insights based on his recent research and experience working within the industry. He proposed that in order to increase participation in sport and physical activity, policy-makers and implementers need to have an understanding of the theory around sporting capital.

Nick defines sporting capital as: “The stock of physical, social and psychological attributes and competencies that support and motivate an individual to participate in sport and to sustain that participation over time.”

The presentation stemmed from Nick’s research recently published in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics. The article, entitled ‘Sporting capital: a theoretical and empirical analysis of sport participation determinants and its application to sports development policy and practice’, can be found here.

Nick stated that there are three factors which determine how likely someone is to participate in sport: social, psychological and physiological (which includes physical health and physical competency). These three ‘domains’ interact and create someone’s level of sporting capital.

Nick outlined that the higher the scores within the three domains, the higher their sporting capital and therefore how much more likely they will be to sustain participation. It goes without saying that in contrast, a person with lower scores within the three domains are very unlikely to participate in sport, never mind sustain sporting participation. The model can be seen below:


The hypothesis that Nick presented was “increasing sporting capital within participants should lead to sustained participation”, which made us think that the model of sporting capital could be compared to previous tried and tested models of behaviour change, for example Dahlgreen and Whitehead’s 1991 ‘Social Model of Health’ or ‘Rainbow Model’. This model acknowledges that an individual’s health is determined by multiple influences and it goes wider than the three domains outlined in the model of sporting capital.

Dahlgreen and Whitehead’s model has been recently used to influence local health and wellbeing strategies. So the concept of applying theoretical models relating to behaviour change is not a new concept, but it is a topic which is currently very popular amongst policy-makers within the world of sport. Thanks to the efforts of organisations and bodies from other sectors who have previously invested heavily in this concept, there is a body of evidence to support the idea that such models are fundamental to sustained changes within an individual’s behaviour.

This leads us to ask if sporting capital is just another ‘model of behaviour change’ which looks to solve the problem of ‘not enough people are participating in sport’, rather than explore the root causes which lead to an individual not participating in sport.

At this point, it would be really useful to draw upon work carried out in another topic area, community development, in particular the work of Margaret Ledwith. Ledwith (2005) draws upon Hope and Timmel’s 1994 ‘six stages of questioning’ as a model for helping to get to the root cause as to why a particular issue within a community exists.

The model helps us to avoid superficial analysis and could help policy-makers and implementers meaningfully analyse why there is an issue in sports participation. The first step of the model encourages us to clearly frame the issue is which needs addressing – to be clear before any further analysis takes place. The second step suggests we then analyse why the issue exists in the first place. The third step deals with analysing where the issue tends to exist, is it geographical for example? The fourth step suggests that all problems related to this issue are further analysed; in other words, what are the consequences of the main issue existing? Which then leads to step five; what is the root cause of the issue? What is the main cause of ‘not enough people participating in sport’. Last but not least, this is bookended by step six, which is putting an action plan into place to tackle the issue.

Still with us? Well, what we propose is that models such as sporting capital may not be addressing the correct issue in the first place, so it is therefore impossible to get to the ‘root cause’ of the issue which such models are aiming to eradicate.

If we follow Hope and Timmel’s model, it could be argued that the issue up for analysis isn’t ‘not enough people are participating in sport’, but instead ‘why don’t some people want to participate in sport?’ which, in turn, may lead to step five and the root cause being ‘inequalities in society’. Consequently, the actions that lead on from here need to be around addressing these inequalities and the effect they have on sports participation.

However, let us be clear; we are not arguing that models like sporting capital do not have an important role to play in policy and programme formulation; indeed, we think they have a significant role to play. What we are proposing is that more attention needs to be given to addressing the preceding inequalities in society, which lead to low participation rates and ‘low sporting capital’. We are really interested in what is been done around why someone may score low in the three domains and how this can be addressed.

We think sporting capital could be an important consideration for sporting organisations, or organisations using sport to increase the impact of their projects, and for those aiming to get more people participating in sport. For an example of where sporting capital has been applied to programme design, check out Nick’s work with StreetGames.


Following Nick, Professor Coalter entered the discussion. It has always been a pleasure to gain insight into Fred’s expertise – in particular, check out A Wider Social Role for Sport: Who’s Keeping the Score?

Fred’s presentation at the conference used material from The Spirit Level (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009, The Spirit Level: why equal societies almost always do better. London: Allen Lane). This is a book which explores the challenges of inequality and class across different social groups and countries.

This echoes Fred’s research which challenged the UK Government sport policy GamePlan’s use of certain Scandinavian countries as comparators and as a basis for setting aspirational targets for sporting participation. It illustrated the robust and consistent relationship between sporting participation and social class in the UK (Coalter, 2013).

Fred argues in this research that there are different levels of participation across a number of countries and that these countries are substantially different to the UK in terms of distribution of wealth, income inequality, general inequality, educational access and social mobility and gender. Fred asked how these countries can be true comparators to the UK?

He highlighted that the economic and social features in these countries, which may help to explain their higher sporting participation rates, are well beyond the control of sports policy. This left us challenging whether sport policy does, and could make a difference.

Much of this echoed other prominent discussions by Dorling (2014) and Standing (2014), who provide an analysis and insight into inequality and class. In a time of growing inequality in the UK, with Brexit on the horizon and within an age of ‘super-austerity’, this raises serious concerns for those in sport.


1 Sporting capital could offer a new way to understand sporting participation and help to get more people active.

2 The influence of sport policy on sporting participation may be a hostage to levels of inequality in our country.

Our final thoughts

As researchers we feel that the area of sport, class and inequality is under-researched. Further, there is a need for more research on the impact of the economic recession on sporting participation. For those seeking to contribute to the latter, please see this call for papers.

We also wish to highlight the seventh annual UKSDN conference on September 16, 2016. This conference aims to build on other events we have attended. Importantly, it aims to bring together academics, researchers, students and practitioners in the area of sports development. Get involved and please reach out to us if you have any questions.

Dr Dan Parnell is Research Director at ConnectSport and an active researcher and senior lecturer in Business Management at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research interests cover the sport and leisure sectors within the UK and he works globally on a number of projects, in particular the social role of sport., follow @parnell_daniel on Twitter or access his research here.

Louise Morby is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Development at Leeds Beckett University and Equity Lead at the UK Sport Development and Research Network. Her research interests include gender and sport, policy formulation and implementation and the wider role sport can play. Contact or follow @loumorby on Twitter.

Relevant research:

Coalter, F. (2013). Game Plan and The Spirit Level: the class ceiling and the limits of sports policy? International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 5, 1: 3-19. Found here.

Rowe, N. (2015). Sporting capital: a theoretical and empirical analysis of sport participation determinants and its application to sports development policy and practice. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 7, 1: 43-61. Found here.


Where did it all go wrong for grassroots football?

This article was originally published here.

Make no mistake about it: English football is entering new terrain. New media investments, and the changing roles and structure of clubs, has led to football rapidly changing both economically and culturally – despite the actual game itself remaining relatively stable – and right now English football should be at its pinnacle. But on an international stage, England is still in a vacuum of underachievement and failed expectations.

This summer after another early exit from the European Championships, the then England Manager Roy Hodgson and the Football Association (FA) parted company. The FA looked to the powerful “super-agent” Jorge Mendez for support recruiting Hodgson’s successor.

Sam Allardyce was lured from Sunderland. Allardyce’s portfolio shows no major trophies in his career achievements and his appointment was greeted by a large chorus of critics. His style of play is contradictory to the FA’s new playing and coaching philosophy, which endorses ball retention. Allardyce endorses lots of long balls, meaning many within see Allardyce’s appointment as a backwards step for English football’s development.

The FA, not known for wise decisions and long-term vision, is currently under pressure to reform it’s approach to grassroots football or face government funding sanctions. This is not the first time pressure has been applied to the FA – it previously received funding penalties of £1.6m from Sport England, for failing to grow grassroots football participation – with evidence showing a decline in participation in football across the UK (see figure 1).

Participation in football Dr Paul Widdop, developed using Active People Survey Data.

Soggy pitches

One theory put forward for falling football participation figures is the infrastructure and standard of surfaces. In 2014, there were 639 publicly available artificial grass pitches in England, compared to 3,735 in Germany.

The fact that artificial grass pitches are in short reserve, means that when demand exceeds supply, young and upcoming players are left to play – if they are lucky enough to have “the weather” – on poor quality grass pitches. The FA has previously described these types of pitches as being in an “abhorrent state” with reports of some teams not playing at all during the winter months of November to March because their local pitch is simply not up to scratch.

And it’s not like these teams can just move indoors to a local sports hall, because there is usually a cost implication, and besides indoor play isn’t really an option for developing footballing talent. This is mainly because playing in a sports hall makes the ball bounce differently, and move at a different speed and with a different movement.

In theory an artificial pitch could be built inside – this is what they have in Iceland and the number of these facilities are growing in England – but this is more expensive. An expense that operators within the current economic climate outside of the height of the Premier League can not afford.

Football pitches throughout England are predominately controlled by local government. And like other sports, football has been victim of reduced maintenance and groundskeeper staff in parks, alongside increased pitch fees for association football.

In Merseyside for example, Liverpool City Council proposed to cut 1,500 jobs, including the majority of full-time parks staff that take responsibility for the football pitches. And across the River Mersey in neighbouring Wirral, the borough council increased the costs of football pitch fees – a decision met with objection by the Cheshire County FA.

Pitch conditions are thought to be a large part of the problem. Laszlo66/shutterstock

Rising costs alongside poor and irregular playing opportunities means a poor experience for players. And football is much like any other sport in that participants want and need a positive experience. And with the wealth of alternative sporting options and services available, if they don’t get what they want, they will simply do something else.

This concept is critical to the future of English football. Because if we do not develop football participation, we may lose the national game, or at least the grassroots part. So while the major stakeholders such as the Premier League may quietly endorse and laud their huge academy systems, they know quite well that in reality, their portfolio of players in the future will be a result of external trade and transfer.

Future of the game

The recently departed chairman of The FA, Greg Dyke, like his predecessors failed to deliver change and success with either the national team or at grassroots, and only time will tell whether his replacement can make a difference.

Yet, The FA has made a commitment to invest £230m, mainly in artificial grass pitch facilities, alongside the development of 150 football hubs built in 30 English cities under its 2020 vision.

This comes as part of a national football effort, including further investment from the Football Foundation – which receives £12m a yearfrom both The FA and the Premier League, and £10m from the government. On top of this, the Premier League has also committed up to £1 billion investment in grassroots football (and sport) as part of its £5.5 billion three-year TV contracts.

That grassroots football is in crisis is not up for debate, but how best to solve it, is. Pexels

But of course it is unknown whether this will be enough to make a dent in falling football participation. And given that senior commentators and football players say we are 30 years away from meeting the football pitch needs of English grassroots – that is, without the impacts of Brexit and continued austerity on football – it is clear there is still a huge way to go when it comes to solving the English football problem.

Ans so for now, the nations grassroots football players will no doubt continue their season to season experience of rained off games, soggy pitches and fixture turmoil.


Golf: widening the gap between those who can and cannot

This article was originally published here.

By Dr Paul Widdop and Dr Dan Parnell 

Golf is a multi-million pound industry. We have just seen the open in Scotland that will do much for raising the profile and interest in the sport. Indeed, the Open in the UK is one of the four big annual major tournaments, with Sky paying a reported £15m a year to broadcast the event, which itself can be worth some £140m to the local host economy (Wilson, 2016). A report by Sheffield Hallam also highlights that UK golfers spend a whopping £4billion per year. Despite this golf still has its problems with gender inequality and falling participation.

Given the limelight associated with The Open and in-turn Golf, Dr Paul Widdop (Leeds Beckett University) and Dr Dan Parnell (Manchester Metropolitan University) take a close look at golf to help better understand the current landscape.

Eminent sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984) once stated that the practice of sports such as tennis, riding, sailing or golf doubtless owes part of its ‘interest’, just as much nowadays as at the beginning, to its distinguishing function. More precisely, to the gains in distinction which it brings. It is no accident that the majority of the most select, i.e. selective, clubs are organized around sporting activities which serve as a focus or pretext for elective gatherings. Certain sport like the arts is then used as a symbolic marker (distinct from other less worthy forms of sport) used to reinforce and reproduce the class position. Furthermore, through relational mechanisms individuals can use access to certain sports as an instrument to develop social capital and access to lucrative job market. This is certainly true of golf, where certain clubs put economic barriers up through obtrusive membership fees and strict rules of etiquette, to remain exclusive and exclude those not worthy of membership. Clearly for Bourdieu the taste for the game will be consumed by members of the higher classes, due to the social profit that it brings (such as building new networks, enhancing social capital, both of which can be exchanged at a later date for economic benefit). In other words as in other leisure and cultural fields, sporting taste and sport participation is intertwined with social class, or the symbolic meaning a given sport presents to others, which brings us to golf.

Indeed, inclusivity did not appear at the forefront when the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (Scotland) admitted females to its membership for the first time in history. The first female being, The Princess Royal, reaffirming the class orientations and distinction of the sport (Widdop and Parnell, 2015). Despite this, the future might offer some hope, with another ‘THIS’ branded initiative, This Girl’s Golf, which was launched in 2015, to change female perception of and participation in golf. Nigel Freemantle, chairman of the British Golf Industry Association (BGIA), said “Females are getting more and more into the game…Also, if we can get women with children to take up the sport, then they might bring their youngsters to the club and get them into the game too.” Freemantle also offers further positivity suggesting golf is not in a bad place.

Despite the positivity, and the excitement and grandeur associated with The Open 2016, we are reminded of our colleague, Professor Jim McKenna’s comments on the legacy of the Grand Depart in Leeds. McKenna draws on the work of Dennett to help us consider the ploy of ‘using lay audiences as decoys’. So, a big sport event may get the audiences, public attention and the associated media spreads, pages, tweets and likes. It is all too easy to follow, enjoy, consume and applaud who ever heads the leader board. Therefore, as easy audiences we act as decoys.

Like the Grand Depart, The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and no-doubt The Open 2016, we will adopt what Dennett terms ‘Occam’s broom’; when this broom is being used it whisk inconvenient evidence under the carpet. Freemantle and others offering positivity, might just be well-intended advocates of the broom, whisking the broom clearing inconvenient truths about golf and the more genuine and likely impact and non-impacts of a this event away.

Much work has been undertaken to ensure golf accessibility to the masses in terms of class and geography, despite persistent regulations and codes, such as the firmly enforced attire and etiquette, which are hard to decipher for those lacking in the prerequisite cultural credentials, creating symbolic boundaries of exclusion.

Yet, according to KPMG, England reported a decline of 2.4% in registered players in 2015, while Scotland recorded a drop of 0.8%, although it may be that golfers prefer to play on an increasingly ad hoc basis, paying for golf per round rather than registering with a club or course (Wilson, 2016). This is not just about participation, it is about class, geography and inequality.


Using data from the DCMS, Taking Part Survey (2006-2010) a worrying trend had emerged. Indeed, rather than a systematic narrowing of class inequalities, there is in fact a growing disparity. Figure 1 below illustrates, from 2006 to 2010 salariat classes (i.e., the professional and managerial occupations) have an upward trend in the consumption of Golf, whereas in comparison, the working class consumption rate is decreasing systematically year on year. Clearly more evidence is needed to determine if this trend is continuing. However what is not in any doubt is that there are major class disparities in the game that need to be addressed, to rid it of elitist connotations’.



Alongside class, gender, and ethnicity, there are hidden spatial inequalities that impact upon consumption, which includes golf. Mapping the aggregate data from the Taking Part Survey (2006-2010) against Government Office Regions of England, highlights these spatial inequalities in Golf participation. Individuals residing in the affluent South East, and East of England make up 33% of golf participants. There is a fraction of evidence that points at the much debated North South divide. Whilst we must be aware of the limitations of inferring from a large spatial scale, the data supports the finding that you are more likely to participate in Golf if you reside in the South of England.



“Golf is still too often wrongly stereotyped as something from yesteryear, but it is not a sport from bygone days or just for old boys in funny trousers,” says Mr Freemantle (in Wilson, 2016).

Freemantle offers a hope that golf doesn’t cost too much, suggesting a basic set of children’s golf clubs costing around £50 (Wilson, 2016). Whilst this doesn’t account for club fees, other equipment and balls (the authors were often explorers of the ‘rough’ during golf and after hours to retrieve their or others balls!)

Despite this, we believe the much of the nation, whether related to general house-hold responsibilities or participation choices, are ‘tightening their belts’ or just have less to spend. Austerity has had a real impact on the lives of people and research has shown that spending on sport per household has been negatively impacted as a result (Eakins, 2016).

The price to play may have got higher. Like others sports such as swimming (Parnell, Millward and Spracklen, 2014), municipal golf has faced financial changes. With many municipal golf courses, who mainly cater for the working class golfers up and down the country, either under threat, have been sold (sometimes for housing) or have been left in disrepair (see the below case studies).

Case examples

There are examples across the country of courses closing or under threat of closure. Indeed, Western Park Golf Course in Leicestershire is one such example of a golf course under threat of closure (Leicester Mercury, 30th July 2013). A further example is Amington Golf Course, which has been lost because of funding cuts by Tamworth Borough Council (BBC, 28th September, 2014). Many municipal courses have also been sold to private companies and enterprises, for example, Wirral Council and neighbouring West Cheshire have agreed to sell-off seven municipal golf courses: Arrowe Park, Brackenwood, Bebington, The Warrens, Hooton, Knights Grange and Westminster Park. Tenders have been invited although it is not known what will happen if the council does not receive any attractive bids. Councillor Chris Meaden, Wirral’s cabinet member for leisure, sport and culture, said: “Along with our colleagues in Cheshire West and Cheshire, we are keen to continue pay to play provision, and are confident this combined package across the two boroughs will attract customers and operators who will be able to put those courses on a sound and sustainable financial footing.” (Golf Club Management, 2nd February, 2015). The most disturbing case may well be Keele Golf Course in Staffordshire. RMW Ltd, fronted by Masters winner Ian Woosnam was due to take control of the course, but the deal with Newcastle Borough Council collapsed after the councillors claimed the company had begun making unreasonable demands. Since then, the course has remained closed (The Sentinel, 10th March, 2014). The only activity on the course is the opportunistic local entrepreneurs who have ploughed the overgrown fairways. The council is considering a number of options including a housing and golf re-development (The Sentinel, 10th March, 2014), yet at the time of writing the course remains closed (and overgrown).

The future

What does the future hold for golf? The announcement of opening up the game to female golfers should see a spike in participation for this group, and this should see a diversification in Golf consumers. However, there remains concerns this just reinforce the growing class and spatial inequalities currently inflicting the game. As we move towards greater levels of unease at what appears to be institutional inequalities, it is difficult to envisage a future whereby Golf can free itself of elitism. Despite this, England Golf (the national governing body for the sport) recently recruited a new Chief Executive. Nick Pink, who steps into this role offers some hope for those wanting to raise participation in the sport. Pink, who in his past role as European Manager of the International Cricket Council was able to able to claim a 35% in participation in cricket in the Europe. A laudable achievement that may serve England Golf well during this difficult fiscal period.

Heads up! How small-sided football can help the nation’s health

This article was originally published here.

Dr Dan Parnell, of the Business School at Manchester Metropolitan University, offers some thoughts on recently-published research which highlights how small-sided football training can contribute to the health of the nation.

In England, we have observed the growth of professional football clubs as deliverers of Primary Physical Education (PE) (Parnell et al., 2016). Whilst Primary PE has been outsourced to a range of willing providers, recent research suggests that football could offer some real answers to tackling the health of the nation.

In June 2016, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published an editorial by Peter Krustrup, Juri Dvorak and Jens Bangsbo, which discusses the role of small-sided football training in schools and leisure-time sports clubs, and how it improves physical fitness, health profile, well-being and learning in children (Krustrup, Dvorak and Bansgo, 2016).

How can small-sided football training help children?

The editorial highlighted that of the research on Football for Health (about 100 scientific articles from 2009 to present), approximately one third have investigated football training in schools and in sports clubs.

The conclusions are encouraging:

  • small-sided football training induces high heart rates, a large number of intense actions along with high involvement, technical success rates and training effects for boys and girls irrespective of body mass index, fitness level or prior experience with football;
  • 98% of children who are members of football clubs live up to the physical activity recommendation of health authorities and they have stronger bones, less fat and greater aerobic fitness than non-sport club members, and
  • small-sided school-based football interventions with just 2×30, 3×40 and 2×45-minute weekly games improve bone health, heart health, physical capacity and learning in children aged eight to 12 years old.

This provides a clear message for all stakeholders from policy-makers to headteachers: Football has the potential to get children fit and healthy! 

What can we do?

We have already highlighted the lack of research and understanding of the role of professional football clubs in the delivery of Primary Physical Education (Parnell et al., 2016). But that aside, those involved in (and genuinely interested in) getting our children fit and health need to, in football terms, ‘get their heads up’.

We need to deliver high-quality, focused programmes which use small-sided football training to deliver health targets. And this needs to be supported with clear research and evaluation, to make sure we are getting this right in practice (Lansley and Parnell, 2016). The evidence is there – we just need to make this happen.

This article is based on the following research article:

Krustrup, P., Dvorak, J., and Bangsbo, J. (2016). Small-sided football in schools and leisure-time sport clubs improves physical fitness, health profile, well-being and learning in children. British Journal of Sports Medicine, doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-096266 (open access here).

Dr Dan Parnell is an active researcher and senior lecturer in Business Management at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research interests cover the sport and leisure sectors within the UK and he works globally on a number of projects, in particular the social role of sport. or follow @parnell_daniel on Twitter or access his research here.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑