Title: Sport light: A sociological perspective on institutional change in sports participation
Other Titles: Sport light: Een sociologisch perspectief op institutionele verandering in sportdeelname
Authors: Borgers, Julie
Issue Date: 17-Dec-2015
Abstract: At the root of this doctoral thesis lays the diversification of opportunities and ways to be involved in active leisure time sports participation. Whereas sports participation traditionally took place within the structural boundaries of a sport club, opportunities for participation have expanded to less formal, more flexible, so-called ‘light’ organisational settings. Examples are widespread in commercial fitness centers, extracurricular sport programmes, work related sport activities, mass sports events, public sport facilities and roads or parks that are conquered by informal groups and individual runners or cyclists. Also within traditional clubs there seems to be an increasing awareness of the need to flexibilise and innovate the supply in order to appeal to the rising share of light sports participants that, apparently, seek for flexibility and autonomy in their sporting practice.
This thesis addresses the concept of ‘sport light’ from a sociological perspective to enhance understanding of institutional change in sports participation. The focus of the empirical analyses is at the demand side, that is, the profile of the light sports participant. The aim is three-fold to (i) conceptualise trends in sports participation as an issue of institutional change, (ii) enhance understanding of mechanisms and processes of involvement underpinning the emergence of sport light, (iii) discuss policy implications related to the emergence of light institutions in sport.
Both quantitative and qualitative data set the basis for the analyses. Quantitative data mainly originate from ongoing research traditions on sports participation within the Policy in Sports and Physical Activity Research Group (KU Leuven). In this regard, data of the Flemish Household Study on Sports Participation (1969-2009), the Survey on Sports Participation in Kinesiology Students (1972-2009), the Leuven Longitudinal Study on Lifestyle, Fitness and Health (1969-2012) and the Participation Survey (2009, 2014) are used. Also data from national surveys on sports participation in Denmark (1964-2011) are included in the frame of a research cooperation with the Danish Institute for Sports Studies. Furthermore, the Survey on Bark Running Tracks (2013) was carried out for the purpose of a case study included in the thesis. Qualitative data stem from interviews with light sports participants (n=40) who were selected from the ongoing sample of respondents in the last timepoint of the Leuven Longitudinal Study on Lifestyle, Fitness and Health.
The thesis consists of twelve chapters. The first three chapters introduce the research problem (chapter 1), outline the theoretical framework and research questions (chapter 2) and provide an overview of the overall methodology and structure of the empirical part of the thesis (chapter 3). Next, the section with empirical papers (chapter 4 to 10) is based on seven scientific articles that each focus on a specific research question. Chapter 11 integrates the findings of the different empirical studies in a scientific discussion and provides implications to future research and to the practical field of sport policy and sports management. Lastly, chapter 12 concludes the thesis with the most important insights related to the theoretical background of the study. The thesis is guided by three main research questions:
- (How) can trends in sports participation be considered as an issue of institutional change?
- What is the social and cultural profile of light sports participants?
- How can sport policy respond to the emergence of sport light?
The first research question is addressed in chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7. Chapter 4 presents a conceptual framework of sport light as an issue of institutional change. The aim of this chapter is to position ‘sport light’ in the available literature by providing theoretical clarity to the concept. From this perspective, the notion of sport light is related to theories of institutional work and institutional entrepreneurship. The theory of institutional work stresses the importance of considering the interaction between individual actors and their institutional environment in the creation, maintenance and disruption of sport related institutions, whereas the concept of institutional entrepreneurship is used to identify individual sports participants as important actors in these processes of change. A dynamic model of organisational settings for sports participation is proposed to describe the intertwining tendencies of deinstitutionalisation and reinstitutionalisation. We suggest that institutional boundaries of organisational settings can change over time, and it is not sufficient to classify organisational settings based on traditional perceptions of ‘organised’ vs. ‘non-organised’, or ‘formal’ versus ‘informal’ sport. Hence, sport light cannot just be perceived as a breakdown of traditional institutions, but rather it emphasises the coexistence of multiple institutional logics in the organisational field of participatory sport.
Chapters 5, 6 and 7 provide more clarity to the content of ‘light’ institutions by focusing on trends in sports participation styles and motives for sports participation in general. The time-trend analysis shows a fragmentation and emergence of recreational health-oriented activities and lifestyle sports alongside a traditional component of typically club based team sports that occupy a stable position since the start of the study in the 1970s. Chapter 6 (focus on youth) and chapter 7 (focus on adults) confirm that participation in sport light is strongly related to health and body-oriented motives for participation, which provide evidence for the emergence of sport light as a reflection of post-materialistic values.
The second research question concerning the social and cultural profile of light sports participants is addressed by three subquestions. First, chapter 6 and chapter 7 provide insight in ‘who’ participates in sport light by focusing on the demographic and socioeconomic profile of sports participants in different organisational settings. It appears that typical light, non-club organised settings have the ability to attract different groups than club organised sport by involving more women, adults and people with a more difficult financial situation. It should be noted, however, that also different kinds of light settings attract a heterogeneous group of participants and the specific context needs to be considered to discern differences between participants. In this view, it is suggested that participation in fitness centers and on a self-organised basis is more accessible than club organised sport, whereas participation in informal groups seems to reproduce patterns of inequality as observed in sport clubs.
The sport related profile, that is ‘how’ light sports participants practice(d) sport now and in the future, is elaborated in chapter 7, 8 and 9. Chapter 7 and 9 provide insight in the frequency of sports pariticipation and the time-spending on sport among non-club organised participants in comparison to club sports participants. It reveals that club sports participants generally spend more time on sport on a weekly basis, whereas results about the frequency of participation are ambiguous between the two chapters. It is also shown that the effect of organisational characteristics may vary between different types of sport activities, which suggests that benefits of club organised sport cannot be taken for granted for all sports. Chapter 8 presents a tracking analysis of organisational settings for sports participation among middle-aged adults and shows that, overall, participation in sport light is not significantly affected by previous sports experiences. Club sports participation, on the other hand, seems to be more strongly affected by patterns of socialisation in (club organised) sport. Accordingly, chapter 7 revealed that adult sports participants who were inactive during youth are more likely to engage in sport light than in a club at a later age. These findings suggest that light settings can be perceived more ‘open’ to enter at different stages in life than club organised sport. Furthermore, no transfer is observed between club and light sports participation, or vice versa, over the life course. In contrast,
The third subquestion provides insight in the rationale ‘why’ people engage in sport in a light setting. This was mainly investigated by a qualitative interview analysis in chapter 8, which reveals a variety of reasons concerning flexibility and autonomy (‘when’ one wants), the importance of a preferred social context for sports participation (‘with whom’ one wants) and the level of participation (‘how’ one wants). Some of the arguments concern clear advantages with regard to self-organised participation in the perception of participants, whereas others show a reluctant attitude towards club organised sport due to negative perceptions or a lack of knowledge with regard to the supply. A quantification of reasons to engage in sport outside of a club among youngsters (chapter 6) reveals that the easiness of practice is among the most commonly reported rationales for a ‘light’ participation sytle. In both studies, it also appeared that ‘no particular reason’ was commonly mentioned for choosing a light setting, which can be explained by the choice for a particular activity without intentionally considering the context for participation. Altogether, it is suggested that sport light is not the result of a single choice but participation behaviour results from a complex interaction of factors at different levels.
The third research question of the thesis concerns the policy implications related to sport light. Chapter 10 presents a case study on the use of bark running tracks as an example of light sport facilities. The outcomes of the study show that public investments in light sport facilities can be an effective tool to attract non-club organised sports participants, thus to support and facilitate sports participation among a wider range of people as is the case in traditional club-oriented policy systems. In the discussion of the thesis, ideas about light policy strategies are extended by implications for the future policy and management of participatory sport. Proposed strategies concern a parallel policy approach targeting both structured and flexible forms of sports participation through (i) a flexibilisation of the supply of sport clubs (i.e., innovation in clubs and federations), (ii) alternative funding for light sports participants (i.e., demand-oriented funding towards the participant), (iii) investments in light sport facilities and the improvement of accessibility of existing facilities, and (iv) interorganisational cooperation with commercial organisations to develop a more market-oriented approach.
It may be clear that changing patterns of sports participation set out challenges to the future policy and organisation of sport. In this view, the emergence of sport light is a relevant topic for future sociological, management, marketing and policy related research to the understanding of sports participation behaviour. This thesis may be a way forward to the further development of (international) sports participation research that builds on the conceptualisation of sport light and insights in mechanisms and processes underpinning the emergence of light sports participation styles. This may enhance the understanding and awareness of the subtle institutional differences that occur in different organisational settings.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Policy in Sports & Physical Activity Research Group

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