Major sports in the UK


Sports facilities are generally excellent throughout the UK, whether you’re a novice or an experienced competitor. Among the most popular sports are soccer (football), rugby (union and league rules), cricket, athletics, fishing, snooker, horse racing, motor racing, golf, archery, hiking, cycling, squash, badminton, tennis, swimming and skiing, an large number of which were British inventions.

Most water (sailing, windsurfing, waterskiing, canoeing, yachting) and aerial sports (hang-gliding, parachuting, ballooning, gliding, light aircraft flying) also enjoy a keen following.

The leisure industry is big business and new sports facilities and complexes, including golf clubs, yacht marinas, indoor tennis clubs, dry-slope ski centres, health and fitness clubs and country clubs are sprouting up in all areas. They’re all part of a huge growth market which is expected to gain even greater momentum in the coming years, as more people retire early and have more time for leisure and sport (ironically, many people won’t be able to afford to retire at all). Many sports owe their popularity (and fortunes) to television (TV) and the increased TV coverage (and competition for TV rights) generated by the proliferation of cable and satellite TV stations. Professional and amateur sports have benefited hugely in recent years from the increase in the commercial sponsorship of individual events, teams, and league competitions.

The vast majority of sports facilities are ‘pay-as-you-play’, which means you don’t need to join a club or enrol in a course to use them, although there are also many private clubs you can join by paying an annual membership fee. Participation in most sports is inexpensive and most towns have a community sports or leisure centre, financed and run by the council. District, borough and county councils publish free directories of clubs in their area and regional sports councils provide information about local activities. Most higher educational establishments and many large companies provide extensive sports facilities for students or employees, usually for a nominal fee, and many state schools have extensive sports facilities (which may be open to the public during evenings, weekends and holiday periods). Some organisations such as the YMCA and YWCA allow members to use their sports facilities at any time, on payment of a weekly, monthly or annual fee, and many clubs have cheap rates for those under 18 or students.

In contrast to the extensive and often excellent sports facilities for competitors, facilities for spectators often leave more to be desired. It’s only in the last decade that major soccer stadia have left a primitive past behind in which most spectators were expected to stand on the ‘terraces’, with no protection from the cold and rain. Following a number of tragedies, soccer clubs were obliged (for safety reasons) to convert these to all-seat stadia, many of which are among Europe’s best.

English Couch Potatoes

Despite the excellent sports facilities and the estimate that over 25 million people over the age of 13 regularly participate in sport and exercise, around half the population takes none at all (apart from strolling to the local pub and staggering back). Participation in many sports is the reserve of an elite group with everyone else relegated to the role of spectators (or TV couch potatoes). Sports participation for the young isn’t helped by the government, which spent years trying to reduce the amount of time devoted to it in state schools. Lottery money certainly helped the English Institute of Sport ( ), which now has a web of centres around the country, but it seems more dedicated to producing winners than spreading the ethos of the game for the game’s sake.

Perhaps the inert majority have been listening to the statisticians, who estimate that you’re up to 17 times more likely to drop dead playing sport than reading a book, although if you exercise regularly you’re actually 20 times less likely to drop dead so early. Sports injuries are estimated to cost the economy some 7.5m lost working days a year, most occurring in rugby, soccer, hockey, cricket and martial arts. If you injure yourself, there are sports injury clinics in most towns and sports physiotherapists in most sports centres. In addition to sports with an obvious element of danger (such as most aerial sports and mountaineering), many other sports (including most winter sports, power boat racing, waterski jumping, show-jumping and pot-holing) may not be covered by your health, accident or life insurance policies. Always check in advance and take out special insurance where necessary.

Sports results are given on the television teletext information service and published widely in daily newspapers. The Sunday broadsheet newspapers provide comprehensive cover and a nationwide results service (particularly for soccer and rugby). Numerous magazines are published for all sports, from angling to yachting, most of which are available (or can be ordered) from any newsagent. For information about sports facilities, contact Sports England, Third Floor, Victoria House, Bloomsbury Square, London WC1B 4SE (0845-850 8508, ). The Central Council of Physical Recreation (CCPR), Francis House, Francis Street, London SW1P 1DE (020-7976 3901, ) is the national association of governing bodies of sport and recreation in the UK. The names and addresses of sports associations and federations can be obtained from Sports England or the CCPR.

This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.

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