Sport in the city – it’s a profitable game

Leeds town centre. At a nearby mini golf, conditions are perfect. Apparently half the city had the same idea so, as the masses wait, the local ice cream vans and coffee shops do a roaring trade. This is sport in the city – and it tells a story.

While the mini golf was buzzing over here, the shops spluttered on over there. The high street apocalypse continued in the first half of 2019: big ticket casualties include Arcadia (almost), Debenhams and Liam Gallagher’s Pretty Green.

The loss of chains like Patisserie Valerie and casual diners like Jamie’s Italian, not to mention current William Hill’s woes – it all seems rather poignant. No one is safe.

But while retail, food and bev and the bookies quake, one high street industry’s going like the clappers. Sport.

With the sun out, and two ice creams in, mini golfing in Leeds reminded me of something. Since opening as a Manchester pop-up in 2015, Junkyard Golf has successfully bridged the social-sport divide. It offers a different kind of event, where eating and drinking hangs around light competition via low-barrier-to-entry sport.

After four years it’s a 300-strong company with five locations in as many cities. By my reading, profit is now in double digit millions and participation shows a reasonable gender split.

And from dusty old golf to pseudosport darts, Flight Club has breathed new life into a pastime destined for the margins and working man pubs. The ones that are left, that is.

Like Junkyard, Flight Club’s main business driver is word-of-mouth; bosses reckon 80% of business comes from one person telling another to give it a shot. Why would they do that? Because it’s great fun – that’s why. This one’s not just for the boys either, female customers represent 45% of all Flight Clubbers. Not only is revenue nearing double digital millions, participation in darts in England has all-but-doubled in a year. Coincidence?

No one will sit here and tell you that leisure golf and darts are raking in all this cash on their own, but as an experience package; the formula works. An informed guess tells me that profit in both cases is mostly (probably two-thirds) bar and restaurant spend. But food and the drink aren’t the draw here. No, it’s the social, sporty bit that’s reeling punters in.

Even the public sector is getting in on the game. Ping! is a collaboration between Sport England and Table Tennis England and has led to more ping-pong tables than ever before springing up in public places; especially shopping centres.

Aiming at inclusivity and public health more than profit, Ping! has contributed to the fact that half a million more UK adults (2018 v 2017) are meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines of doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.

Participation at Ping! hit 1.24m in 2018 and, again, it was almost equally split along gender lines. More than that, one in five who took part had a disability. The up-and-atom stats are encouraging, but for retailers on the high street struggling to put a point on all this, what if I told you that 75% of Ping! people revisited? And that three in ten became once-a-week Pingers?

Oh and the moneyshot? The average time spent at a Ping! enclosure is 15- 20 minutes per person. The average spend of a Ping! player during that time? £31.

To underline – Ping! players spend up to £2 per minute during their visit. Just like the ice cream vans and coffee shops in Leeds, supportive / strategic merchants can capitalise by folding or factoring social-sport-spend into their business.

And now that we’ve done golf, darts and ping pong, it’s onto cricket which, World Cup win or not, is probably another sport needing a shot in the arm.

Two pals built BatFastin a Nottingham garage and, four years later, the cricket simulator is played on five continents. Well over a million balls have been bowled (not necessarily hit) and return visits are more inevitable than not, with local businesses benefiting substantially from the footfall.

BatFast is mega portable, capable of being set up and pulled down in minutes. And it has the added engagement gold-dust of updating itself in real-time, folding poignant cricket moments – such as England’s World Cup winning balls – into the game for players to enjoy instantly.

BatFast represents that same social-sport-spend – and it’s hugely powerful in towns and cities, for retailers, landlords and shopping centres.

There’s several messages here but from the evidence I can find, sport on the high street equals profit. Feelgood profit. Inclusion profit. Gender-equal profit. Repeat-visit profit.

Businesses that embrace a sporting hook, or align themselves with a social-physical activity, can add an experiential element to their core business that’s demonstrably valuable. The prevailing problem of the high street – indeed any bricks and mortar business – is encouraging people to come out and play when they can do it all at home.

Sport offers that and then some; people bring their wallets too.