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The Cost of Sports at University

There’s much to be celebrated with the return of sport. The camaraderie of partaking in team sports or watching a game is like no other. Within the university sphere, it’s a great way to meet new friends and learn a new hobby while also staying fit and healthy. However, while there are a great number of benefits to playing sports at uni, these are not easily accessible to all… 

There are huge financial barriers that prevent students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds from joining sports teams. It’s a topic that has often cropped up throughout my time at university, particularly in conversation with Freshers. New students typically come to university with a clean slate, open to involvement in a wide range of societies, volunteering or sporting opportunities that weren’t available at school or college. Sports are often top of that list. Sports like lacrosse, ice hockey, American Football and cheerleading are entirely new to most students arriving at university, and the newfound opportunity to take part in those activities is a brilliant thing. That is, if you can afford it. 

Take hockey, one of the most popular team sports at university. UON Ladies Hockey have six teams that compete in the BUCS (British Universities and Colleges Sport) championships, and the women’s first team consistently reach the quarter-finals of the championship each season. Clearly, it’s a fun and competitive game and the UON teams have an excellent track record, offering plenty of incentives for involvement. However, annual membership to a competing performance team (that’s from the 1st to 6th team) will cost you between £120 for a goalkeeper membership, to £300 for a first-team membership. Included in that cost is professional coaching (hence why the cost increases as you move up the ranks) and usually travel to events throughout the year. Value for money? Or completely ludicrous? While it may seem like a hefty price to pay, if you’re passionate and serious about your sport then it’s a no-brainer. 

Yet, the fees don’t end there. Membership to performance teams requires a sports and fitness membership from the university. This is where you embark on an intensive training programme consisting of 3 weekly strength and conditioning sessions and sprint training, with optional drop-in sessions. During non-COVID times, an annual gym membership from David Ross Sports Centre will set you back around £225, upfront cost. So, if you make it to Ladies Hockey’s fourth team you’re looking at £180 for your club membership, add that to your gym membership and you can expect to pay just over £400 for the year. If you’re successful enough to make the first team, that increases to £525. Add the cost of your kit to that figure, and you’re looking at £600, or more.

If you live and breathe hockey, that’s probably a price you’re willing to pay, but there’s no denying that the financial barrier excludes those who don’t enjoy the financial privilege. Admittedly, if you demonstrated remarkable excellence in your sport you’d probably be awarded a scholarship, but that’s out of the question for those looking to learn a new skill. An annual cost of £300-£500 is not something your student loan is likely to cover without major sacrifices to your social spending. If you’re playing competitively, surviving off pasta and coffee to save a buck won’t be an option: you’ll need nutritional, balanced meals. What’s more, with intensive training and regular squad sessions in addition to competitive fixtures, there’s little time left to juggle a part-time job alongside your studies. The bottom line is that without additional funding, performance sport becomes inaccessible to a vast number of students.

This is the reason sport at university is often labelled ‘elitist’. It is those who can afford it who enjoy the privilege of taking part. Besides the financial barriers, performance teams also involve intense trials/try-outs as well as archaic initiation traditions for recruiting new members which usually involve excessive drinking games and vulgar challenges. In particular, Men’s rugby has built a reputation for its initiations and, according to GQ, has supposedly seen dwindling participation numbers as a result. Within the same article, a former member of UON’s netball team discusses her experiences of initiation. She mentions how hierarchies and team politics were at play from the very first social event. The initiation, entitled ‘ladies and the tramps’, involved a night out in which established members dressed in dresses and tiaras while new members were ordered to wear bin bags with no make-up. She left the team after her first year. 

While much has been done in recent years to crack down on initiations that exclude, humiliate or even endanger students, their reputation still pervades throughout the Fresher discourse. These factors contribute towards an unwelcoming and exclusive atmosphere among the upper echelons of university performance sport. Those without the financial means, are shy or introverted or choose not to drink, often feel deterred from joining sports teams before they even arrive at university. But sport is an excellent way to make friends, find a new hobby and stay fit: benefits which should be open to everyone. There should be more egalitarian avenues that allow students equal access to performance sport. 

That said, there are some great alternatives to performance sport which also allow you to compete. IMS (Intramural Sports) are a great way to partake in a range of team sports without the pressures of intense national competition or financial costs. Students have the option to compete for their course, society or university hall in weekly leagues. Most IMS teams don’t require a sports and fitness membership and they are far more relaxed with no intense training and no commitments to play every week. The Engage programme also offers students an opportunity to try new sports in a friendly and non-competitive environment. Sessions are open to anyone, regardless of experience or ability, and there’s also no weekly commitment. Those with a sports and fitness membership can attend free of charge while non-members pay a fee of £3 per session. You can attend as many sessions for as many sports as you like, and all equipment will be provided! Due to COVID restrictions, pre-booking is essential at the current time. 

While there are plenty of opportunities for involvement in a sport during your time at uni, financial barriers to performance sports are still a major problem, limiting accessibility and inclusivity. The economic inequality gap is evidently an inherent issue within society, but universities should be doing more to offer financial aid to those wishing to pursue a performance sport at uni, whether that’s through a sports bursary, an additional loan, or discounts. As we move towards a more progressive, fairer and diverse society, the university sporting environment should be no exception

I'm Lilith, a final year English and Philosophy student at Nottingham. I'm an aspiring journalist interested in writing investigative features and opinion pieces, especially on the topic of mental health. I have an unhealthy obsession with house plants which I love to paint in my free time.
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