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Culture, Shopping & Recreation

Sports in the UK

Whether you prefer to sit in the stands and cheer or be out on the field playing, there’s no shortage of opportunities for sports in the UK, as a player or a spectator. To say that sports in the UK are popular is an understatement – and this passion started long before the 2012 London Olympics.

Cheering for the Home team

Football (a.k.a soccer) is by far the most popular of all sports in the UK. Most newspapers cover it extensively. The noise level of your local pub will let you know when a game is on. And if you live close to a stadium… well, if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.

The history of football is as dramatic as a penalty shoot-out. There are many tales about possible historical forerunners of the sport, but football as we know it today is as English as fish and chips. The birthdate of modern, codified football is 1863, and its birthplace is London. This is when the Football Association was founded. Well over a century later, it’s still the governing body of football in England – and the oldest in the world.

The Premier League is the crown jewel of the English football league system. Twenty teams play each year, and the four heavyweights include Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal. Recently, strong seasons from Manchester City and Tottenham Spurs have increased the heavyweights from four to six.  

As sports in the UK differ among the four regions, Scotland has its own league system. Its top clubs play in the Scottish Premier League. Welsh teams can join either the English or the Welsh football league.

Although football also has its critics, it plays an undeniable role in the economy of the UK. For every £1 that the sports charity Football Foundation invests, £7.73 is generated in the national economy. And for every £1 the central government gives to sports in the UK, it makes £5 in tax.

Other Popular Sports

Don’t worry if football isn’t your cup of tea. Other popular sports in the UK include rugby, cricket, golf, horseracing, and tennis. If you read about the history of sports, you’ll encounter the UK again and again. In addition to being the birthplace of football, London hosts the world’s oldest tennis tournament: Wimbledon. First held in 1877, the tradition continues for two weeks every year in late June or early July. It’s the only major tennis tournament still played on grass, keeping its tradition as “lawn tennis” alive.

Other annual top events for sports in the UK are the F1 British Grand Prix, Cartier International Polo, The Open Championship Golf (aka the British Open), and the Grand National Horse Racing.

England isn’t the only part of the UK that has made a sport famous. Golf, or at least its modern version, belongs to Scotland. There are 2,752 golf courses in the UK – 8% of the world’s golf courses in 2008.

Golf is admittedly one of the more expensive activities among sports in the UK. Regular golfers pay to join a club and are then charged an annual fee. In 2006, the average UK joining fee was £686 for women and £738 for men, plus an annual fee of £580 or £630, respectively. However, there are also public golf courses to make the sport more accessible.

One Nation, Four Countries, How Many Teams?

When it comes to nation states, the United Kingdom is an anomaly. It is a country composed of four separate countries: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. For many sports titles, they compete separately. Each country has its own football team. Though Wales and Scotland both belong to the United Kingdom, they are in the same group for the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers.

However, there is a time when these four nations pool together to represent sports in the UK. That time is the Olympics. Their team is surprisingly called Team GB (Great Britain). The full official name is Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic team, but Team GB is still used for branding reasons.


With the topic of sports in the UK comes the question of funding. There are an impressive number of organizations responsible for administrating, supporting, and funding sports in the UK. One important organization is UK Sport. It’s responsible for investing public money from the National Lottery and the Exchequer. Sport England also spends public funds on nurturing people’s interest and participation in sport.

The Sport and Recreation Alliance is another important organization. It’s an umbrella association representing sports and recreation clubs across the UK, like the Royal Academy of Dance or the Rugby Football Union. The alliance also publishes reports about sports in the UK and related policy. Despite the well-developed infrastructure for sports in the UK, only 49% of sports clubs operate with a surplus, though.

Joining a Sports Club

Whatever sport you fancy, you’ll find countless opportunities to join a club in the UK. From sailing to bowling, cricket to football, gymnastics to running, hockey to golf, lacrosse to fencing, and squash to rowing, there are clubs for most imaginable sports in the UK – 151,000 in total!

In 2008, 46% of residents in the UK reported that they play a sport a minimum of once a week. This is higher than the European average of 40%. If you prefer exercising indoors, there are countless health clubs (a.k.a. gyms) across the UK. The cost of a gym membership varies dramatically, depending on the facilities, classes, luxury, and number of members.

For a budget friendly option join the UK Fitness Network. Membership gives you access to hundreds of classes, pools, and gyms across the UK. This is particularly convenient if you travel frequently or move to another part of the country. The NHS public health insurance service also offers plenty of fitness tips for runners for free.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

InterNations Expat Magazine