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21 August 2020

Why boxing is still a grassroots sport

Monday 24 August • Reading time: 2 minute

By David Barrett, Research Fellow, Sports Industry Research Group

In England, 1 in 4 boxing clubs are located in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods. Our research sheds new light on their important community role.

Fighters at an amateur boxing club
Amateur fighters at a club in Tamworth

Many sports struggle to engage with BAME groups, those from low-income backgrounds and young people who may be involved in crime or gang activity.

Boxing is the exception — reaching people that other sports don’t. Across England, boxing clubs are doing exceptional work in marginalised neighbourhoods. This is well-known in boxing circles, but not well publicised elsewhere.

Sport England commissioned us to evaluate the impact of boxing clubs on their communities. We spoke to 60 clubs across England and found stories, experiences and outlooks that were very similar.

Value, convenience, credibility

Think of a football, rugby or cricket club, and you might imagine suburban fields and open space, with pavilions, stands and car parks. People often drive or take public transport to attend and membership fees are relatively high.

Boxing clubs are different. They don’t need a level surface with white lines, turf or flood lights. All they need is somewhere dry and secure, like a church hall, or an abandoned shop, workshop or industrial space. They can operate in urban areas where other sports are absent, at low cost. 

This is perhaps part of the reason why 75% of affiliated English boxing clubs are in the most deprived parts of the country. One in four are in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods. 

One coach told us:

“In our community, which is in the bottom 10% of deprivation, we have got 3 boxing clubs and no football at all. No football, in one of the most deprived areas of the country, yet there are three boxing set ups. So, where boxing is sticking around as a grassroots sport, football is becoming more of a corporate entity”

Using existing community spaces also means boxing clubs are integrated and authentic. For many people in deprived areas this credibility is important, giving kudos to a tough, physical sport. 

An amateur boxing club
Kings Heath boxing club

Constructive coaching

Boxing clubs would not exist without an army of volunteers to run them. Their support often goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Coaches and volunteers are usually from the local area and understand its problems. They act as mentors to people who may be at risk of involvement in crime or antisocial behaviour, or face complicated personal issues. Volunteers from outside the community might struggle to build this rapport.

Honesty is everything in these relationships. A boxing coach must have the ability to deliver hard messages to challenging individuals. This might include telling a fighter that they are not ready for a specific bout, or lack the ability to turn professional. But all members are encouraged to work hard and participate fully. As a result of the honesty of their coaches, they often stay engaged in the sport for many years. 

This trusting and open relationship is valuable for people who school, family and social services may have failed. It helps create an environment where participation is not dependent upon ability, but on enthusiasm and commitment. 

Inclusive and supportive culture

As a sport with a global reach, boxing is popular across nationalities and cultures.

Boxing club members come from different backgrounds and take part for different reasons. Across the UK, coaches noted highly multicultural cohorts and pointed to an all-pervasive culture of respect, even where there may be ethnic tensions in the community. 

One coach in London told us:

“Whatever you are, whatever you do, just bring it here, and train. We don’t care in this gym. Right now, we’re all-inclusive. We’ve got one religion here. It’s just boxing.”

Participation, volunteering and community spirit are key to boxing club culture, and are often seen as more important than financial gain. 

Membership fees are deliberately low, and are often waived if members are unable to pay. This is sometimes in exchange for help in training sessions or other tasks.

As another coach put it:

“When I was a kid I had no money, so the coach said ‘that’s alright, you just come along and help me to train the beginners’. I do that with my kids now.”

An amateur boxing club
Inner City ABC in Southampton

At the heart of their community

Boxing can provide a blueprint for other sports in engaging people from lower socioeconomic groups — and helps to combat antisocial behaviour and crime. 

However, many clubs struggle. We’ve made seven recommendations to ensure the long-term success of grassroots boxing. Many of these are related to quantifying and promoting the clubs’ exceptional community work. 

The recommendations could make all the difference — attracting funding, engaging new members and creating new revenue streams. England Boxing have already been awarded £150,000 by Sport England to support and extend the work of community boxing clubs as a result of our research.

By shouting about grassroots boxing and inspiring a new generation, clubs can thrive. With the impact of coronavirus placing extra strain on our communities, they may be needed more than ever.


David Barrett has worked at Sports Industry Research Group for seven years, specialising in the analysis of spatial data. David is qualified in the use of Geographic Information Systems, and specialises in the analysis of spatial data and in data visualisation. He has worked on market segmentation analyses for professional sports clubs, and has used GIS to measure and analyse the extent of sports facility catchments, supporting our delivery of the National Benchmarking Service.

All photos courtesy of England Boxing.

Young people at an amateur boxing club
An amateur boxing club in Tamworth
Research themes

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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