Posted on December 24, 2014

If there were any doubt about football’s status as the number one team sport in the UK, it is resolved following an in-depth sport participation study by SPORTS MARKETING SURVEYS INC. (SMS INC.). Although not established in law, Football is England’s de facto national sport.

Not only is it a national pastime, but also an intrinsic part of the nation’s culture: 9% of the population participate regularly but whether young or old, male or female, many more watch on TV, attend matches or consume it in some other form.

35-to-44-year-olds are the best-represented age group of football participants (making up 30% of the total), and a similar number of players are aged between 25 and 34. However the sport also boasts a healthy segment of over 55’s who, enabled by the growth of seniors’ leagues and walking football, make up 9% of all UK football players.

We observe similar age trends in cricket leaving us to infer that the contrasting seasons of play, benefit participation in these sports in the UK.

Like football, cricket (the second most popular team sport in the UK) is dominated by players aged 25 to 44 (57%), with the 35 to 44 year olds making up 28% of all cricket players. Equally cricket also has a strong over 55’s representation (17%), and can claim that 6% of its participants are over 65 years, which is considerably higher than any other major team sport.

Rugby is the third-ranked team sport in the UK, by number of participants. Its competition period runs in parallel with that of football, thus conceivably competing against the national game for core participants and club players.

In contrast to cricket, just 2% of rugby participants are over 65, most likely due to the intense physicality of the sport. It further diverges from cricket and football: a much higher portion of its total players are aged 18 to 24 (16%), and over half are younger than 34, suggesting a significant post-school-age drop-off and a much less successful amateur league system.

Whilst football is the most played team sport, it also holds superior involvement levels to cricket and rugby off-the-pitch. Although only 11% of UK participants are a member of a football club, just over one-third of the UK population actively follow the beautiful game on the TV, and more than a quarter regularly watch it live (at any level from school matches upwards).

Whereas cricket is ahead of rugby in terms of participation figures, the game of rugby enjoys greater involvement. While 17.4% of the UK actively follow rugby on the TV, only 14% follow cricket. TV rights deals, and the availability of leading rugby, but not cricket, series on terrestrial TV, may significantly influence this difference.

In 2013, the same year as the Football Associations 150th anniversary, Nike replaced Umbro as the official team-wear sponsor of the England football team. Although the real influence of this coveted deal is yet to be realised, an investigation by SPORTS MARKETING SURVEYS INC. confirms that Nike has surpassed Umbro – the original ‘vintage footballing brand,’ in terms of purchasing preference amongst football players. Nonetheless Umbro’s significance is maintained by being the third most-purchased brand for football clothing, footwear, balls and shin pads amongst active players (behind Adidas and Nike).

When discussing brand awareness, Nike and Adidas achieve almost universal recognition, explaining why the two brands make up 75% of all football clothing items last purchased by football players. The multinational sport brand giants are also considered first when players buy (foot)balls, ahead of British brand Mitre. One-third of participants stated that they would consider buying a Mitre ball, and just shy of one-fifth did choose Mitre the last time they purchased a ball.

Unlike football, cricket’s more specialised equipment is not so dominated by so few brands. While Nike and Adidas maintain their presence, they share a more equal stake in the market with over twenty other niche brands. Adidas was the most-purchased brand when cricketers last acquired a helmet, clothing, and footwear; and specialist cricket manufacturer Gray Nichols was top for pads, body armour, gloves, and the signature piece – the bat, where one-fifth of bats bought were crafted by the Kent outfit.

The rugby goods market sits between that of football and cricket. Adidas, Canterbury and Nike are the top three purchased brands of clothing, and niche brands enjoy a greater share of the spoils when it comes to more technical goods such as body armour, and scrum hats. The most purchased balls are those made by Gilbert, who fittingly lead global ball sponsorship in the rugby world.

One possible motive for football’s popularity is the lower cost of playing the game. In contrast to cricket and rugby, footballers do not require any technical equipment to participate, only clothing, footwear and shin pads. This also justifies why the multi-sport store is the most popular purchase location from which to purchase football ‘goods’ closely followed by the online specialist sports retailer: the equipment doesn’t demand specialist guidance like that required when acquiring a cricket bat, helmet, a scrum hat, or shoulder pads.

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