Sport for all?

Andrew Misell | June 2023 | 9 minutes

Alcohol plays a big role in so many sports but is it driving some people away, especially people whose culture doesn’t include drinking?

When was the last time you went to a sober sporting event? Whether it’s Six Nations rugby or test-match cricket, the chances are the beer will be flowing for a significant portion of the crowd. That’s not a problem, up to a point. But in recent years, the news media have been full of stories of intoxicated fans spoiling the fun for others – by shouting, swearing, going back and forth to the toilet, and generally behaving badly.

Some of us might find that kind of thing annoying but tolerable. But what if the drinking culture that dominates some sporting spaces is driving some people away for good? I’m thinking particularly here of the millions of British people whose culture or faith doesn’t have a big role for alcohol – or any room for it at all.

There have been hints of this problem for years. The Changing the Boundaries report on cricket in Scotland in 2022 referred to “the persistent use of alcohol” and “lack of consideration for different religious practices and beliefs” as factors excluding Asian players and spectators. In 2021, a campaign was launched to challenge sports clubs to do more to welcome Muslims. One key change advocated was supporting the “non-consumption of alcohol, including during celebrations.”

We decided to try and find out whether reports like these were part of a broader pattern; and if they were, what could be done to improve the situation.

We knew that the issue of alcohol and sport is massive, and massively complex. So, we decided to focus in the first instance on one group of communities – British Asian people – and on two sports – cricket and rugby union. Both are sports in which spectators can consume alcohol in sight of the pitch, and both can be said to have had a troubled relationship with alcohol from time to time.

We commissioned the independent research company Magpie to explore the issues for us. They conducted a survey of 830 British Asian sports fans and a series of more detailed focus groups with some of the survey respondents.

Perhaps surprisingly, two thirds of survey respondents said that they had drunk alcohol at least once in the last 12 months. The lack of robust drinking data broken down according to ethnicity in the UK makes it hard to know how representative this 66% figure is, but it is higher than some would expect amongst communities with a traditional adherence to religions – such as Islam, Sikhism, and some branches of Hinduism – that prohibit alcohol use. One possibility is that, by only surveying sports fans, we filtered out non-drinkers who avoid sport because of the drinking, but we’d have to do more research to find out if that’s the case or not.

The survey respondents expressed a wide range of views on the role of alcohol in sport. For some, drinking was an important part of the “big match” experience, whereas others were actively deterred from attending by the presence of alcohol. Although a quarter said that drinking could create a positive atmosphere at matches, half said it had a negative effect. Some respondents described a “tipping point” when the behaviour of those drinking around them stopped being fun and became rowdy or threatening – sometimes resulting in racist verbal abuse towards players. 72% of cricket fans believed that alcohol was the main source of disorder at matches.

Drinking amongst spectators seemed to be less of a problem in community sports clubs than at big matches. A more obvious issue at this level was the expectation that players would socialise with alcohol post-match. As one focus group respondent said, “If you happen to be someone who doesn't drink, then you can feel isolated and excluded”. Another said they "felt as though I wasn’t able to continue socialising because of my beliefs.”

We were keen to explore solutions as well as problems, and there were some very positive and practical suggestions from respondents. Only a minority wanted alcohol removed from sports grounds, but there was strong support for creating more alcohol-free zones and family areas, and for venues offering more alcohol-free drinks and appropriate food – such as vegetarian and Halal options. It was also suggested that governing bodies could help local clubs and develop a better understanding of what British Asian people would like to see at venues.

In the coming months we’ll be seeking to meet with a range of sports organisations to discuss the findings of the research and their implications. Our aim, as always, isn’t to stop anyone enjoying a drink or two, but to understand how the sale and consumption of alcohol can be better managed so as not to exclude anyone. We recognise that many – maybe most – sports clubs see alcohol sales as an important income source. Our research, however, strongly indicates that there are plenty of sports fans out there who would be taking part as players or spectators more often if drinking didn’t dominate so many sporting spaces.

Take a look at Magpie's research on our research hub

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