A group of leading historians of sport met at Crewe on 5 June to discuss this. It proved a fascinating day. It allowed me to carry out an opportunity sample drawing on the expertise of those folk who attended to create a SWOT analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in relation to sport history within and beyond the university world. SWOT is a method of decision-making first used in Harvard Business School in the 1960 and later developed further to help guide competitive/strategic advantage and shape future steps.
It sets out to maximize strengths, circumvent weaknesses, capitalize opportunities, manage threats, and can be used in conjunction with analysis of university forces/factors such as competitive and rival courses, student interest, departmental weaknesses etc.
Here’s a summary of what folk said, in rank order of frequency
Weaknesses of sport history which should minimized or converted into opportunities
Placed in rank order
1. A feeling of intellectual isolation dominated the responses. Leisure history is better integrated into the mainstream than sport, but both insufficiently integrated into mainstream journals. Specialist: sport, tourism, cinema etc.
2. Sport history still sometimes dismissed as ‘fans with typewriters’, as not sufficiently relevant to the present day. This is linked to low external perceptions, especially within sports departments where it occupies an ambiguous position, and sometimes naively seen by sports science academics as lighthearted entertainment rather than a subject with rigour. There are tensions between the subject’s origins in sports studies and PE, history and leisure industries, sociology/anthropology, and therefore in backgrounds of academics and their fit with departments above. Leisure being displaced in universities.
3. There is insufficient diversity within the sub-field. Though leisure history attracts a better gender balance, sport history is still very male-centred and in the UK has not recruited minorities well.
4. Several themes all had similar levels of response
5. Often over-tied to the status quo and traditional approaches. No radically different forms of sports history are currently emerging.
6. Academics still may need more training. Marketing and impact not yet thought about sufficiently
7. Sport history is not a subfield which attracts significant funding, unlike sports science, for example, so getting funding is extremely difficult unless you are with a leading university. And this damages REF standing too.
8. Less emphasis was placed on these though all are still important.
International differences in terms of patterns of historical writing
Library books are expensive and necessary but often in short supply.
Coverage – over-strong focus on modern (and classical?) period in leisure and sport.
Insufficient ‘grand theory’, or transnational/cross-cultural work. Oral history under-used.
Difficult to get funding for projects with indications funding councils do not look favourably on sport/leisure topics and favour mainstream topics. History REF less supportive than sport REF
Impact of work often very difficult to quantify.
Sports studies students are often more interested in the present and the practical. History’s reading demands are challenging.
Declining print runs of historical monographs and small historical journals, with limited circulations.
Opportunities for sport history which should exploited and maximized
Placed in rank order
1. Leisure and sport history can be linked to heritage, museums, sites, community history, partnerships, outreach and commemoration. Almost all participants mentioned heritage and community history in some form. The move to heritage can drive the discipline forward. Perhaps BSSH should become the Society for Sport and Heritage History. Heritage is a main forum where the public engage with the past via media, museums, communities etc. Outreach ensures work has a meaning, audience , value and a future.
2. Ever-growing amounts of on-line archival material which some universities and some county libraries allow to be accessed free, though it is less helpful for research into minorities or marginalized groups
3. More outreach to amateur, family, local and sport club history. As Martin Polley pointed out, local sport projects are a great way of interrogating sport history and developing original research
4. Several emphasized that that sport history is just as significant and important as military history, parliamentary history or any other subfield of historical research. It could become a significant part of the new social and cultural studies, fusing cultural and structural or perhaps link to business history. It could link more closely to leisure history and there is a possible need for a dedicated Leisure History journal where all aspects of British leisure (sport, art, cinema &c) were covered.
5. Subject can challenge students to think critically within otherwise narrowly focussed ‘professional’ courses.
6. Sport history in universities could submit to sport, not history, in next REF
Also touched on but not emphasised were some other points
• Scholars and students still very inventive about ways to convey subject’s significance.
• Big demand for books about leisure and sport history, but often self-satisfied ‘nostalgia-fests.’
• Presenting papers at mainstream, non-leisure history conferences, and networking more with the mainstream
Threats to sport history, troublesome elements which we should be aware of and seek to tackle
Placed in rank order
1. There was substantial concern about the potential move to open-access journals, with writers of research papers paying very substantial amounts to publish, an idea invented by Russell Group universities, whose research grants will cover the costs and also help their impact. It will be very problematical for leisure/sport articles written by those outside that circle, or those who private individuals who want to share their research.
2. REF does not reward inter-disciplinary work and offers increasing challenges, especially in terms of creating impact. Growing emphasis on metrics like numbers of citations is not helpful to subjects like history where references go up slowly over a longer time frame.
3. Economic and political pressures to encourage more ‘vocational’ and supposedly ‘relevant’ university courses, and increased pressure from line managers for more teaching, admin and other work at the expense of research.
4. Costs of digital access rising.
5. Fewer jobs: recruitment to study of sociology of leisure and sport, history, sports studies and leisure studies departments, and departmental size all recently in some decline
6. Leisure increasingly seen as entertainment, not something to critique.