Start-up technology business aiming to tackle physical inactivity in the UK

Sam Parton

Today is National Fitness Day, which highlights the importance of leading healthy and active lifestyles. With physical inactivity responsible for one in six UK deaths (equal to smoking), and estimated to cost the UK £7.4 billion annually, this is an issue that needs urgent attention.

Awareness campaigns are important, but they are not enough – we also need new strategies and solutions.

Being active should be open to everyone. But it is still too hard for people to access sports and activities on their doorstep. Unbelievably, people in the UK find it twice as easy to book a holiday than a fitness class.

This is why I started OpenPlay, through frustration with how complicated it was to book a football pitch for the Under 15’s team I was coaching in 2012.

The role of technology 

Technology needs to play a much bigger role over the long-term in improving health and wellbeing.

The consumer demand for flexibility, transparency and personalised experiences is overwhelming. Just look at the popularity ClassPass has in cities across the world, or how fascinated and motivated people now are with tracking their steps and their sleep.

Despite the innovation out there, many gyms and local facilities still rely on outdated, manual management systems, sometimes even just Excel or pen and paper.

So why has disruption come so late to this sector?

The industry’s unique structure, with multiple stakeholders and many public-private partnerships, means that change takes time. The margins are also lower. Taking a cut of a £100 hotel room is more attractive than a £10 badminton court, particularly to investors, especially when operating margins are challenging enough.

But the main reason? Because it is hard graft. It might sound crazy, but it just isn’t as easy to code software to book a badminton court, as it is a flight or a hotel room, as the operating and consumer behaviour is completely different.

Leisure centres also have complicated layers of memberships meaning that their booking systems usually become a victim of their own complexity.

Open Play success 

Eight years in, after considerable perseverance, we have managed to build the type of powerful software the industry needs to improve performance and revenues.

This has coincided with moves by Sport England and the Open Data Institute to help the sector innovate, open up data and develop digital offerings.

It is calling upon sport and physical activity providers to share data – in the same way transport providers have done, leading to apps such as CityMapper.

Our mission around sports participation still guides OpenPlay to the core, but it would be nothing without a commercially sustainable business.

By Sam Parton – OpenPlay founder.