The magic numbers

David Minton heads the company that is responsible for all Sport England’s Active Places data. Jonathan Ives visited David at the Leisure Database Company to find out how information has changed the leisure industry, why data has become so important and who was responsible for Tiswas.

David Minton: working out the numbers for the leisure industry

The lines taped on the floor of the Leisure Database Company’s new office space serve as an indication of the task ahead. An extension to their contract with Sport England to supply data for the Active Places initiative will mean finding and updating information on some 30,000 sports facilities across the country. This means they need more people. Each square of tape indicates a new bank of desks for the expanding research team.

Four years ago the Leisure Database Company won the original contract to provide data for the Sport England Active Places project, which sought to build a definitive database of all the available facilities for twelve core sports. This involved the collation of information on every fitness gym, golf course and driving range, swimming pool, sports hall, indoor tennis court, synthetic turf pitch, running track, indoor bowls rink, ski slope, ice rink, squash court and dance studio they could find; and updating it regularly. This involved 12,500 sites and this year Active Places has been expanded to include grass pitch data for sports such as football, hockey and cricket, making a total of 30,000 sites in all. The Leisure Database Company are preparing to be very busy over the next three years.

David Minton, the company’s director and founder, has thirty years’ experience of the leisure and fitness industry but his starting point was closer to broadcasting than sport. “I sold ideas for programmes to London Weekend TV and Capital Radio,” David explained. “The idea was community programming backed up with off-air information databases. In those days what was then the Independent Broadcasting Authority insisted every local ITV and radio contract had to provide community programming. On Capital it was Sunday afternoon when about two kids were listening but they didn’t want to upset those two kids with a lot of information on air so there was an off-air telephone service. The Saturday ITV programme for LWT was on- air between ten and twelve, supported by information off-air about where you could play tennis or whatever was being featured.”

Equipped with a bank of Rolladexes, shelves full of files and an early AppleMac computer system (allocated to them by Steve Jobs personally), the service kept its communities informed. A conversation with Michael Grade, then head of programming at LWT, led to David being closely involved with the development of LWT’s weekend show for children, Saturday Action, and while working at Capital Radio he ran into Chris Tarrant who was keen to be involved. Before long Saturday morning programmes around the ITV regional network had been pooled and moved to the Midlands for broadcast, thus launching Tiswas on an unsuspecting world.

Although business was good, David was aware that retaining and providing such a huge amount of data was not particularly lucrative. “It was the usual thing of nobody wanting to pay for information because everybody thought the information was free,” he said.

A request to Sport England for a list of all the sports centres in the country revealed that they did not keep such information because it went out of date faster than they could update it. A similar question to the Lawn Tennis Association was met with a blank refusal to release the whereabouts of any of their affiliated clubs and the governing body for gymnastics insisted all enquiries were routed through their network of voluntary regional secretaries, who would then direct callers to their nearest gymnastics club. To add to the mystique, facilities were also managed by a variety of departments within each local authority, making it difficult for the casual enquirer to find out where, when and how much it might cost to get involved with sport.

“It was unbelievable,” David said. “So we thought that if we collected all this information we could perhaps show people how mad it is. This year is the fifteenth year of our annual sports charges report, which started because there was no overall view of sports charges. Now committee reports are on the web but then if you wanted a copy of the committee report with the charges report for the next year you had to go along to the meeting, so we used to find out when the meeting was and go along on the night and grab a copy.”

As the Leisure Database Company struggled to find people willing to see the value in such data, a turning point arrived in 1997 in the form of a new government. The new Labour minister with responsibility for sport and culture, Tessa Jowell, asked Sport England for an audit of sports facilities so that her department could understand the relationship between the investment of lottery funds and the demand for facilities. Sport England’s list was a few years out of date and, with the growing clamour for funding to meet what had become the ‘facilities time bomb’, demands for accurate data increased.

“We had been collecting this information for years,” David said. “We were very lucky that someone who knew what we were doing said, ‘We hear you’ve got some of this’ and introduced us to Sport England.” A public-private partnership agreement was drawn up and the Active Places database began to take shape. With Sport England’s involvement came a new willingness for local authorities to provide their data and the introduction of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) by the Audit Commission gave an even greater incentive. “Overnight that changed the situation around,” David said. “Local authorities now want to make sure that their information is up to date, especially just before the Audit Commission deadline.”

The Active People survey has been expanded to include grass pitch facilities, bringing 30,000 sites within the Leisure Database Company’s remit. In addition the company compiles an annual national audit of fitness consumers, plotting over two million of the 7.2 million people with fitness club members on a geo-demographic profiling system. A new service, the Fitness Market Monitor, is based upon getting fitness operators in the public and private sectors to pool their data in respect of some common key performance indicators.

But what does all this data tell us about the UK fitness industry ? “It tells us that compared to some others the industry is so much more robust,” David said. “We looked back and in the last downturn we saw that the fitness industry continued to grow at all levels. That was because it was so small at the time but, having said that, nobody knew at the time how it would respond. In the current downturn we know that the industry has been unbelievably robust all year. When the credit crunch hit twelve months ago we were expecting people every month to tell us how bad it was last month but it never happened. Memberships maintained their level and went up in quite a few cases. We were amazed that there was so much good news. This year, through the credit crunch, we’ve been having ten new fitness facilities across the public and private sector open every month.”

David also sees evidence that leisure managers are now learning how to use the data that is available to them. “The very simple thing is that if you go back ten years almost nobody would understand their customer base. This was universal but particularly noticeable in the public sector. Nobody would have any idea who their customers were. Now trusts, in-house facilities, even dual-use facilities and particularly the private sector and hotels have a fairly good grasp of who their customers actually are.”

Better information, David argues, brings better facilities. Once people understand the information that is available and how it can impact upon their business decisions they are usually keen to have as much data as possible. Tools such as dot maps and decay graphs plotted against time and distance can provide a very detailed picture of core catchments. Many operators and authorities would now not dream of building any facility without doing all the data work.

Looking to the future, David is clear about the next step for data within the leisure sector: “Without doubt it is to understand more about who is participating and how often. To understand barriers to communication and participation will be really important. Understanding usage is crucial: what’s the point in providing facilities unless you know more about the people that are coming to them? Every PFI scheme in the sports arena has been unbelievably successful. They have increased participation so many times more than all the best estimates, including ours, but is this the M25 effect? If you provide  better facilities and you build them in the right place will you naturally attract more people?”

David is delighted that government departments beyond the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are now taking an interest in the impact of sport and leisure on their own particular areas of interest but he is sure that they will need data to maintain their commitment. By way of example he offers the Depart of Work and Pensions (with former culture secretary James Purnell at the helm) looking to get more people physically active so they can get back to work, the Home Office recognising the impact of sport and leisure on social cohesion, and of course the Department of Health. With the government wanting to improve physical activity and opportunities among specific target groups, they will need to understand where facilities should be built to achieve the desired impacts. David argues that better data means better decisions and offers the Willesden leisure centre, which quickly outstripped its predicted usage figures in an area of social deprivation, as a good example of what can be achieved.

“Willesden has good facilities but the uptake at the new centre has been staggering,” he said. “It’s managed by Leisure Connection and their data feeds back into our estimates. Data needs to be constantly refreshed and by ploughing this data back in our estimates get more accurate.”

It seems a long way from Tiswas. David laughed. “It is a long way but it’s just as much fun.”


Jonathan Ives is editor of The Leisure Review.

The Leisure Review, December 2008

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“Understanding usage is crucial: what’s the point in providing facilities unless you know more about the people that are coming to them?”

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