Analysis of the Public and Private Sports Industry

Public, private and voluntary sectors in the sports industry, advantages and disadvantages of the leisure centre being in the public sector, how the local leisure centre can meet the aim of getting more local clubs to use its facilities.


“Since the opportunity to participate in sport or recreation requires facilities, the central task of organisations, and associated individuals, is to provide a service which focuses on people and which satisfies that need.”[1]

The sports industry has changed beyond all recognition since the beginning of the 1990’s in each of the public, private and voluntary sectors. The impetus has come from top level government policy with the creation of the UK Sports Council and the formation of the chief sporting bodies such as Sport England offering both funding and structure to the previously ad hoc nature of leisure and recreation in modern Britain. Moreover, the lure of professional sport has also irrevocably changed in tandem with the structural changes in amateur sport with the result that there is, at the dawn of the twenty first century, more people are taking an active part in sport, which has further increased the pressure on local services such as leisure centres. There are though vast differences between the way that the public and private sector sports providers are run and funded as shall now become apparent.

The Private Sector

With regards to the sports industry, the private sector refers to those leisure services that are funded by private capital and open only to private membership. This can mean anything from specialist professional sports clubs to health and fitness clubs to local sports teams that have been established and sponsored by local and national businesses alike. The advantages of this kind of sporting industry are predominantly economic with the funding of private sports clubs historically far outstripping the economic resources available to equivalent public sector sports services. Certainly in the 1970’s and 1980’s, private sector sports industries were far more popular and productive than their public sector counterparts mirrored in the elevated sporting achievements of private school sporting institutions as opposed to the relative failings of the same public (comprehensive) school sports bodies. There are, however, inherent disadvantages to sports and leisure services that rely exclusively on the private sector for funding. First and foremost, there are no guarantees that the source of that funding will remain constant for any fixed length of time. Benefactors are subject to the ups and downs of the free market economy, which can result in sharp reductions – as well as rises – in the level of funding provided. In addition, any leisure service that is inexorably tied to the private sector also inevitably suffers from the lack of community spirit that can only be adequately garnered through association with the local public authorities. Thus, while the advantages to sports services in the private sector appear on the surface to be all encompassing, the reality is that the lack of stability that characterises all facets of the private sector economy hampers the sustained growth and popularity.

The Public Sector

“We know that sport can make a positive contribution to national morale, health and the economy. We believe that it can enhance community spirit, equality of opportunity, personal development and social integration.”[2]

As the above quotation from the UK Sports Council in 1992 attests, the government has radically altered the way in which it views sport and the national leisure industry. The leisure industry is no longer seen as a vehicle through which to achieve solely sporting success; rather, sport – within the corridors of power in Westminster – is now seen as a way of combating such issues as obesity, social exclusion and perceived self‑competence.

“Sports are vehicles of identity, providing people with a sense of difference and a way of classifying themselves and others.”[3]

As a direct result, funding within the public sector has seen a sharp, unprecedented rise since the early 1990’s with the government acting as the focal point behind this increase in official spending. An investment of £1.5 billion over the next five years by way of state sponsored assistance has been promised by Westminster to further increase the organisational structures and performance levels of adult and child athletes who train and practice within the public sector. This money, bolstered by funding generated from institutions such as the National Lottery, is delegated to local sports authorities within Sport England, Sport Wales, Sport Scotland or Sport Northern Ireland and injected into the local community. Furthermore, local government spends approximately £1 billion per year on sport and leisure, which is more than 50% of the total resources available to sport. This financial injection is far beyond any investment proposed by private capital; in fact, because of this large economic discrepancy, the private sector has increasingly sought to form a partnership with the public sector in order to be associated with the vast increase in interest in sport as witnessed in recent years.

Moreover, public sector sports services also get to reap the rewards of the government’s efforts at placing the country on the international sporting map. The 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester and, more significantly, the 2012 Olympic Games to be held in London will prove to be long term sources of investment for all those with an active interest in public sector sporting services. Not only has funding vastly increased (with the cost to the government estimated to be in excess of £1 billion for the 2012 Games), the facilities that have been and are being constructed are open to the public after the completion of the official competition. In Manchester this has served to open up a city centre swimming pool, an athletics track and a football stadium for use within the public sector. The results for London are likely to be much more wholesale than in Manchester. Moreover, as the new facilities and funding increase, so the burgeoning association between national identity, local and central government and sport is further cemented. This has helped to push people into participating in public as opposed to private sports services, representing a significant turnaround from previous decades.

Like private sector sporting institutions, public sector services are similarly riddled with pros and cons. The most obvious advantage at the present time is the aforementioned increase in public authority funding and facilities open to the public sector, exacerbated by a media that constantly underlines the partnership taking place between local government and sport. This is, however, a double edged sword as the major disadvantage to public sector sports services concerns the very nature of government. Ultimately, just because it has suited New Labour to promote participation in recreation and sport is not to state that the Tories would necessarily feel the same. Thus, public sector sports are subject to the same ups and down and insecurities that beset the private sector.

The Voluntary Sector

Voluntary organisations rely heavily upon both the community and private enterprises for funding; they therefore straddle the boundaries that have traditionally separated the public and private sectors. Once more, though, it is the unprecedented rise in government funding that has been the voluntary sector’s greatest asset. The revamped Department for Culture, Media and Sport set up the Community Club Development Programme (CCDP) specifically to deal with the funding problems regarding the facilities and personnel required for the successful operation of volunteer sports clubs. The CCDP will provide £100 million to National Sports Governing Bodies by March 2008 for the construction and continuation of community based sports clubs. Advantages to this kind of sporting authority centre upon the lack of reliance solely upon the public or the private sector, while conversely, at the same time, the lack of constant source of funding makes the voluntary sector the most vulnerable within the current social and political climate.


There are vast disparities between the public and private sectors with the local voluntary leisure centre enjoying the benefits of both worlds. For as long as the current climate favours the sports and recreation industry, the community leisure centre will continue to reap the rewards of a society renewing a relationship with exercise that had previously become stale. At present there is an excess of people interested in taking part in leisure and sport that is wholly to the benefit of local leisure centres that are able to charge admission fees that are significantly less than those on offer in the private sector. In addition, excessive government funding signals that the economic means at the public and voluntary sectors are currently vastly superior to those of the private sector. However, in the final analysis, one should not presume that the imbalance in favour of the public sector will remain as it is indefinitely. Should leisure and sport once again find themselves on the periphery of popular culture, we would surely see a reversal of contemporary trends with the balance tipped heavily in the private sector’s favour as is the case with health and education services. Politics, like economics, is subject to sweeping changes in a very short space of time.


Biddle, S., Sallis, J. and Cavill, N. (Eds.) (1998), Young and Active? Young People and Health Enhancing Physical Activity: Evidence and Implications London: Health Education Authority

Elvin, I.T. (1990), Sport and Physical Recreation London: Longman

Horne, J., Tomlinson, A. and Whannel, G. (2000), Understanding Sport: An Introduction to the Sociological and Cultural Analysis of Sport London: E & FN SPON

Hylton, K. (Ed.) (2001) Sports Development: Policy, Process and Practice London: Routledge

MacClancey, J. (1996) Sport, Identity and Ethnicity Oxford: Berg

Sport in the Nineties – New Horizons: a Draft Consultation (1992) London: UK Sports Council


[1] Elvin, I.T. (1990), Sport and Physical Recreation London: Longman, p.6

[2] Sport in the Nineties – New Horizons: a Draft Consultation (1992) London: UK Sports Council, p.75

[3] MacClancey, J. (1996) Sport, Identity and Ethnicity, Oxford: Berg, p.2

Bill Carlson

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