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Strengthening Canada: The Socio-economic benefits of sport participation in Canada

Key Message

Survey respondents rated seven major types of benefits of sport: physical fitness and health gains; fun, recreation and relaxation; sense of achievement; opportunities for family or household activity; skills development; new friends and acquaintances; and preparation for competition.


Bloom, M., Grant, M., & Watt, D. (2005). Strengthening Canada: The Socio-economic benefits of sport participation in Canada. Ottawa, Ontario: The Conference Board of Canada.


Enhancing participation in sport is one of the four policy goals of the Canadian Sport Policy, which the federal provincial-territorial ministers responsible for sport, physical activity and recreation endorsed in 2002. Yet there is relatively little empirical knowledge about the way sport participation benefits Canadians through its impact on health, education, social cohesion and the economy. As a result, policy-makers lack the evidence required to make informed policy decisions and to connect sport issues to other policy priorities.

The objective of this report is to improve knowledge of the socio-economic benefits of participation in sport so that Canadians and the federal, provincial and territorial governments can better understand its economic and social importance.

The report examines the impacts and benefits of sport participation on individuals and communities, and on the Canadian economy and society. It finds that sport participation has important benefits related to health, skills development, social cohesion and economic performance.

The report also considers the connections between enhanced sport participation and public policy priorities, and recommends a holistic approach to sport policy-making to explicitly link sport participation to a broader strategy to foster physical activity and other actions that improve health and fitness.

Finally, it identifies areas for future research on the specifics of sport impacts and ways to achieve them, which could help policy-makers and individual Canadians make informed choices.

This study examines three types of participation in sport:
• Active participants—individuals who engage in sport for the purposes of competition with others, under a set of rules, or to improve their personal sporting performance;
• Volunteers—individuals who volunteer their time and expertise in sport; and
• Attendees—individuals who attend sporting games or events to observe.

To help correct these trends, governments in Canada issued the first-ever Canadian Sport Policy, in 2002, with four overarching goals related to enhancing participation, excellence, capacity and interaction. Achieving this vision will require public resources.

This lack of awareness may be why we are experiencing a national decline in active sport participation. About 55 per cent of all adults participate annually in sport, as active participants, volunteers and attendees. Yet, from 1992 to 2004, the proportion of adults who actively participated in sport dropped from 45 per cent to 31 per cent. During the same period, Canadians were not finding adequate alternatives to sport to keep them fit. In recent years, more people have become obese or overweight, with negative implications for health.

The study’s methodology included a literature review and the National Household Survey on Participation in Sport. Quantitative and qualitative survey data were analyzed.
• The literature review was a review of national and international studies organized around each of the four pillars of impact analysis: health, skills, social cohesion and the economy.
• The National Household Survey on Participation in Sport was a national representative household survey of 2,408 Canadian households, using stratified random sample methodology. The top-line incidence of sport participation, 54.9 per cent, is accurate +/– 2 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
• The initial survey sample was obtained from commercial directory sources using a random digit dialing (RDD) methodology. The sample frame was adjusted to ensure adequate regional representation across Canada.
• All data for participation rates relate to the one-year period ending December 2004.
• Results from the survey respondents were used to extrapolate to the entire adult population of Canada, employing widely accepted statistical techniques.


Adults in 2004 saw more individual and household benefits from sport than they did in 1998. Survey respondents rated seven major types of benefits: physical fitness and health gains; fun, recreation and relaxation; sense of achievement; opportunities for family or household activity; skills development; new friends and acquaintances; and preparation for competition.

According to survey respondents, sport participation develops a wide range of skills and attitudes, including teamwork, leadership, problem-solving, decision-making, communications, personal management and administrative skills. Sport also builds character and personal qualities, such as courage and the capacity to commit to a goal or purpose, as well as values, such as respect for others, selfdiscipline, a sense of fair play and honesty. Young people find sport enables them to channel their energy, competitiveness and aggression in socially beneficial ways.

More than 50 per cent of active participants believe that sport is very important to their personal skills development; almost 90 per cent believe that it has some positive impact. The vast majority of active participants, volunteers and attendees rate sport as an important source of skills that they can apply away from sport. These skills also help people to play a more positive role in their communities and family life.

Sport improves social cohesion. Sport participants experience a high degree of interaction with other individuals, which improves interpersonal relationships, establishes the basis for trust and builds teamwork skills that generate gains in social cohesion. Social cohesion, in turn, is fundamental to building social capital. Sport works by constructing associations of people that constitute social networks with a defined purpose. These networks generate trust and a willingness to interact with others outside of sport. This willingness can be harnessed to social and economic advantage. Public investment in sport brings many benefits to communities. Most respondents feel that sport participation strongly encourages individuals from different backgrounds to work and play together in a positive way. It gives individuals of all ages good opportunities to be actively involved in their communities, which helps them learn positive lessons about responsibility and respect for others, and gives them the chance to give back to their communities.

Reflecting the wide range of effects due to sport, key findings are grouped into four main pillars of impact: health, skills, social cohesion and the economy. The study explores the nature and extent of participation in sport, including the drivers of participation (such as health concerns, social needs and community objectives) and the impact that this participation has on different facets of our economy and society, building from largely individual impacts (health and skills) to societal impacts (social cohesion and the economy).

Links between Sport, Civic Engagement, Social Cohesion and Social Capital:
Typically, community-based sport programs support civic engagement and social cohesion, thus building social capital, by:
• Providing opportunities for volunteerism;
• Reinforcing relationships between children and parents, within families, within neighbourhoods and across communities;
• Establishing partnerships between community-based sport organizations and similar organizations in their area (such as local community service centres, school boards and schools); and
• Strengthening relationships between various levels of government, out of which new programs that build civic engagement and social cohesion can develop.

A 2003 Ipsos-Reid survey of 1,005 Canadians aged 12 to 21 on their participation in sport and views of organized sport (part of the Reconnecting Government with Youth 2003 study) found that most respondents felt that playing sports:
• Improved their health (99 per cent);
• Helped them make friends (87 per cent);
• Improved their feelings about themselves (85 per cent);10
• Helped them succeed at school (58 per cent);
• Helped them become more active with their family (54 per cent).

Research is an iterative process. While this study has generated data and developed interpretations and conclusions that, we believe, yield compelling evidence of the benefits that sport brings in the areas of health, skills development, social cohesion and the economy, longitudinal and other forms of research will be required to fully validate and explore the nature and magnitude of these beneficial impacts. In fact, one of the more valuable outcomes of this project may be that it has enabled the researchers to pinpoint where more research is needed to shed further light on the nature of sport and the significance of sport to Canada and Canadians.

Additional Information

EXSUM | ©2005 The Conference Board of Canada * Printed in Canada • All rights reserved * ISSN 0827-1070 • ISBN 0-88763-696-6

Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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