Giving top quality HE facilities a sporting chance

High spec campus sports facilities keep students healthy and happy. But how do the sporting and the business sides of higher education coexist?

If you were ever in any doubt surrounding the financial value of sport, wonder no more. Forbes’ recent rich list puts Manchester United second among the most valuable sports teams of 2018, weighing in at a cool $4.123bn.

By way of comparison, that’s just under the yearly GDP of the entire Maldives. Which lends some insight into how financially significant UK sport has become.

But of course, all today’s sporting stars had to start somewhere, either at school, academy, or very likely at university. Without a constant flow of skilled youth development, Manchester United’s worth would soon dwindle away.

There is, therefore, an interesting correlation between the money at the very top end of the game, and the personal, educational and wellbeing aspects gained by offering every student high-end sporting opportunities and facilities, some of whom may eventually climb into the highest echelons.

And, of course, all this links into the corporate side of how higher education works. A quick glance across some of the UK’s top institutions illustrates how seriously high-end facilities are being taken, with investment rife across the sector.

Newcastle’s £16m centre

Designed to provide space for performance and recreational sport, plus academic space for sports research and teaching, this £16.2m investment will incorporate facilities for a range of sports and leisure activities.

The 5,962 square-metre building will include an eight-court sports hall, four squash courts, sport and exercise science labs, a second strength and conditioning room, a spin studio and a gym.

Professor Suzanne Cholerton, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Project Sponsor, said: “It’s very exciting to see the building starting to take shape. This is a key project that will enable us to continue to provide support to our top-performing teams and individual athletes and make sport more accessible to all students and staff.”

The facilities will also, of course, support degrees, like the BSc Sports and Exercise Science programme. And Newcastle isn’t stopping there. The development follows from the university’s third top 10 BUCS (British University and Colleges Sport) ranking.

In addition to the forthcoming sports centre, work is also due to start at Cochrane Park Sports Ground to create three 3G artificial turf pitches alongside an extended and improved pavilion.

Oxford’s state-of-the-art sports hall

Oxford meanwhile has recently opened its new state-of-the-art sports hall, which features a futuristic glass floor. Oxford is among the first places in the UK to offer this innovative sports technology to staff, students and the community.

From a functionality perspective, under-floor LED lighting makes it easy to switch the line markings for different sports, avoiding the confusion that comes with having multiple line markings painted onto the floor as is seen in more conventional facilities.

The development comes alongside other work to reimagine the historic Iffley Road site into a world-class multi-sports complex. Attached to The Rosenblatt Pool, the Phase 1 building will comprise a second four-court sports hall, a multi-purpose activity room, additional dry changing facilities for men and women and a refurbished café and reception area.

Subject to funding, subsequent phases will include a gym and wellbeing centre, a new grandstand incorporating a cricket school, a combined rugby and rowing training centre and an all-weather outdoor tennis centre.

UWE’s £4.5m sports complex

In the South West, the University of the West of England has invested £4.5m in the development of a new sports complex. Due to be completed in October, the facility at Hillside Gardens will provide pitches for football, rugby, lacrosse, American football and ultimate frisbee.

The development will include two floodlit artificial pitches meeting FIFA and World Rugby standards, a grass football pitch, undercover seating for spectators, pitchside dugouts, changing rooms and a car park. The facility will be available for businesses and organisations in the local community to hire.

Alex Isaac, Head of Sport at UWE Bristol, said the high-specification pitches, just minutes from campus, will give UWE sport teams a new home. “With teams, players and supporters able to be together at one venue, we are hoping to create a great atmosphere and improved experience for students.”

Simon Macsorley, Director of Estates at UWE Bristol, revealed more: “Providing students and staff with facilities to maintain health and wellbeing is very high on the University’s agenda. Having first-class sports facilities such as these also encourages wider engagement with local communities and businesses.

“I’m really proud of the work our staff and external contractors have delivered on this brilliant project. Hillside Gardens will be an asset to the estate and local community for many years to come.”

Sport and society; the challenges

Among all this investment, it’s crucial to remember that university sporting facilities are not just about developing the next international stars. Rather, they can be about addressing some very real societal and health issues, which arguably the higher education sector has an obligation to help solve.

The British Heart Foundation’s Physical Inactivity and Sedentary Behaviour Report 2017 finds that physical inactivity has a significant impact on the UK economy of as much as £1.5bn, and £42bn worldwide. The study also reveals keeping physically active can reduce the risk of early death by as much as 30%, and that the average man in the UK spends the equivalent of 78 days each year sitting.

These metrics provide a sobering insight into how university sporting facilities aren’t purely for the next Wayne Rooney. Rather, they are about safeguarding the health of future generations, saving the NHS billions, and about saving lives.

Ian Knott, Loughborough’s Sport Experience Manager, agreed. He exclusively told University Business that sport plays a vital activating role, given today’s social media and internet-based lifestyles, especially among students. “There are lots of challenges in getting society active; people’s lifestyles are becoming inactive, such as getting people to walk and cycle rather than catching the bus or driving. Sport is part of Loughborough’s DNA and we encourage a healthy body, healthy mind approach with our students.”

Crucially, Knott argued that students don’t have to be studying sport to play university sport. “We are constantly developing our campus to make it easy for students to become active with things such as walking and running routes. We also have a massive sport and physical activity programme at Loughborough, from our My Lifestyle initiative to our more renowned performance programmes, athletes and teams.”

My Lifestyle is a programme designed for students who want to exercise, keep fit and play sport for fun. It takes place in an environment free from competition, expectation and commitment. Rather than becoming an international track star, these programmes are about socialising, having fun and meeting lots of new people.

“Loughborough will continue to promote world-class sport and physical activity alongside fantastic academic opportunities, this is its USP,” said Knott. “University sport has always been an integral part of a student’s experience of studying and I don’t see that changing.”

Of course, there can still be links between lower-key events and top-level success; Loughborough launched its School Games programme this August, which offers its world-class facilities to up-and-coming athletes from across the UK. A lot of the 14 to18-year-olds who compete at this event go on to win Olympic medals, for example Adam Peaty.

Where sport, cash and business collide

Michael Hall is Partner at FaulknerBrowns, an architecture firm which is helping the Universities of Stirling, Oxford, Portsmouth and Durham develop top-class sporting facilities. “The huge influx of student numbers over the last 15 years, coupled with the introduction of tuition fees, has driven huge investment in our university facilities,” he explained. “Whilst much of this has been focused around academic infrastructure, non-academic facilities such as those for sport have also benefited from significant investment.”

Hall argued that competition on the pitch is now matched by hot competition off the pitch to attract the best students from home and overseas. Because of this, high-level rankings are becoming increasingly sought after. “The traditional benchmark for the quality of a university’s sport offering is the performance of the institution’s teams in BUCS-officiated competitions and a high ranking in the all-important league tables.”

“Ultimately the key to success here is an emphasis on high-quality amenities focused around the needs of teams, individual athletes and their training regimes.”

Hall agreed that today’s university sport must tread a careful line between inclusivity and results, saying that as general awareness of health and wellbeing in student life increases, it is becoming clear that recreational sport is now of equal importance, especially with the increasing availability of high-quality gym facilities in the private sector. “This balance between performance and recreation is coming under increasing scrutiny, with a particular focus on how they can work together to maximise enrolment,” he said.

Hall also believes that many universities are seeking to soften the boundaries between town and gown, by using sport to forge closer connections with the localities in which they are based. Operationally this can represent good business practice. Sharing the capital and running costs of swimming pools, for example, can create a win-win situation for both parties.

“We recently received planning approval for a scheme for the University of Stirling, which reflects this desire for increased visibility and accessibility of sports facilities, whilst providing the highest quality and most inclusive offer as possible.”

By improving the accessibility and visibility of the site, the university will be able to open up the performance, wellbeing and social aspects of the centre to the wider student body and local community more easily. “For many years, we have explored how the design of university sports infrastructure can contribute to an improved user experience, promote inclusivity, and foster student engagement in sport and leisure facilities, all with the outcome of increased participation,” Hall continued.

Today, multi-purpose and multi-functional sports buildings are designed for the ‘movement continuum’, a concept which enables widened outreach. This concept looks at co-locating a whole spectrum of sporting activities under one roof, thereby inviting a wide range of users of different ages, gender, physical capability and motivations to participate.

In so doing, architects and other university partner businesses can create opportunities for a range of activities, starting from leisure and entertainment which require little skill and commitment, to more formal sport and fitness activities, all the way to performance level sports. “With this concept, the transparency and visibility of the sporting offer, as well as the positioning of social spaces in relation to the entrance and core activities can be critical to success,” Hall added.

“All of these principles fall under an overarching concept of active design, which looks at promoting spontaneous movement, active lifestyles and physical activity. This has become an important item on government agendas across Europe, in an attempt to tackle issues surrounding public health, wellbeing and inactivity, and should be of equal importance to universities.”

Hall’s firm recently received planning approval for an inclusive and sustainable sports facility for the University of Portsmouth, which promotes health and wellbeing through such active design, with the provision of a wide range of opportunities for activity and movement.

This new sports building will provide a range of offerings across the ‘movement continuum,’ including a swimming pool, sports hall, fitness suite, climbing and bouldering facilities, squash courts and a ski simulator.

The final word

One might imagine that university sport is a simple matter of developing tomorrow’s champions; in fact, it is anything but. Rather, the challenges surround successfully meeting multiple criteria; social, business, profit, health and happiness. Those facilities which offer the widest possible participation across the widest range of people touched within a university’s reach, will likely be judged most worthy in coming years.