The Future Of Grassroots Sport Is Going Digital

By Said Gutseriev, London-Based Tech Investor & Founder of Larnabel Ventures

On 10 December, the House of Lords published its National Plan for Sport and Recreation, highlighting the decrease in sports participation in the UK caused by the pandemic. Public health measures such as National lockdowns, restricted access to facilities, and limitations on the number of people who could exercise together created major challenges for the UK sports industry, with most group sporting activities coming to a complete halt for months at a time. 

Although the long-term impacts of this hiatus are yet to be realised or fully understood, not all the pandemic’s effects on sport have been necessarily bad, especially when it comes to the adoption of digital technologies. The House of Lord’s report notes that utilisation of fitness technology accelerated during the pandemic, with two-fifths of UK adults finding new ways to get active with the help of digital tools. For grassroots sports clubs, technology functioned as a veritable lifeline, with teams moving online to stay connected, plan remote training sessions, and track progress virtually. 

At the beginning of the month, leading athlete social platform Strava released its annual Year in Sport report. The data shows that Strava saw a 38% year-on-year increase in activity uploads during 2021, on top of the previous 33% increase seen in 2020. The platform also gained an average of 2 million new users per month and now has a community of over 95 million people. 

Individual performance apps like Strava – which focuses primarily on runners, cyclists, and walkers – use digital analytics to track users’ progress and improvements over time. This data can then be used to inform training strategies and measure performance. 


Fitness trackers aren’t enough

However, equally as important are the communities created on sports-related digital platforms, which help to boost motivation and engagement. This function is increasingly important given that Sport England’s latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey reported significant drops in children and young people’s enjoyment and confidence in taking part in sport since the start of the pandemic.

Active communities on digital platforms can also help side-step one of the sports industry’s most long-standing pain points; lack of access to expert coaching, scouting, and team selection opportunities. 

For example, there are many retention and progression issues in the UK’s current model for nurturing grassroots footballers into professional players. As famed football commentator Michael Calvin pointed out in his book “No hunger in paradise”, less than 1% of boys competing in football at age 9 stand a chance of being scouted into a professional club. 

To address some of these problems, British start-up Footie Group Limited created Ellevate – an app that provides free access to educational resources, as well as a platform for grassroots players to promote their skills and ultimately get scouted. By empowering players to build their own profiles and connect on the app, Ellevate has already helped several previously overlooked players attract attention from professional teams.


Accessibility is crucial

Over the past couple of years, the accelerated adoption of digital tools has demonstrated that technology can provide practical solutions to many of the challenges faced by grassroots sports clubs. In acknowledgement of this point, the House of Lord’s report recommended that the public and private sector collaborate on technological innovations to improve access to sport, promoting in-depth research into understanding the needs of grassroots sport participants and developing tools to meet those needs.

If the public and private sector can work together to invest in developing sports-related digital tools and platforms today, we can better enable the sports men and women of tomorrow to access the resources they need to progress in their respective fields. In short, digital technology will not only help grassroots sport recover from the impacts of the pandemic, but will also help it to be stronger and more accessible than ever before.