Five out of seven major sports suffer drop in participants

New participation figures released by Sport England have revealed a worrying decline in major sports such as football and swimming.

Overall, the steady increase in participation during the last five years continues with 6,938,000 people now taking part in sport at least three times a week.

The total is improved by the strong growth in athletics, which has risen by more than 263,00 over the past two years, and cycling, which has surged by almost 100,000 over the same period. But Sport England are concerned by the ongoing under-performance of five of the top seven participation sports.

Exacerbating the problem is that two of the five are the only sports with more than two million weekly participants – swimming and football.

Swimming – in participation terms the country's most popular sport – is down 88,000 to 3,156,300, while football has dropped by 54,700 to 2,090,000.

Their size means that this decline has a major impact on the overall growth of grass-roots sport.

Golf (87,400), tennis (50,000), bowls (31,000), rugby union (36,100), cricket (32,900) and basketball (34,200) have also witnessed significant reductions.

Jennie Price, Sport England's chief executive, admitted the major sports must address their declining participation numbers.

"It would be fair to describe today's results as a mixed bag," said Price.

"It's good to see a wide range of sports – from individual pursuits like running to small team sports like lacrosse – demonstrating that, with the right approach, increasing grass-roots participation is a realistic ambition.

"What is concerning, however, is that a number of major sports have yet to deliver, despite significant levels of investment.

"They now urgently need to demonstrate their ability to grow participation in their sport and prove they can make a significant contribution to sport at the grassroots level."

Hugh Robertson, the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, wants to see tangible results from the injection of public money into sport. "During the comprehensive spending review we fought hard to get a good settlement for sport, keeping the 'Whole Sport Plans' in place," said Robertson.

"Now it's vital to see a return from the investment sports get from the public purse.

"I want every pound that national governing bodies spend on the grass-roots to count.

"Our recently-launched 'Places People Play' strategy will help get more people participating, but we also need sports governing bodies to step up to the plate and deliver.

"Some sports are making progress and we need to learn lessons from them."

Netball has emerged as one of the success stories with participant numbers up by over 26,000 – an increase of a fifth in the size of the sport in two years.