Pay To Play: The Extortionate Hidden Costs Of UoN Sport

Kit Sinclair

For many, sport and university go hand in hand. The famous Wednesday afternoon fixtures are a true staple of the British university experience. But does everyone have the same access to sport at university? Or are financial barriers seriously restricting who can play? Kit Sinclair assesses the cost of sport at the University of Nottingham. 

In 2021, for the second time in three years, the University of Nottingham was named The Times’ Sports University of the Year. It was an honour the University undoubtedly deserved, and it reflects the continuation of a legacy of sporting excellence that has produced the likes of Deng Yaping, four-time Olympic gold-medallist in table tennis, and Brian Moore, World Rugby Player of the Year. Following the 2021 award, Vice-Chancellor Shearer West commented that it “position[ed] us at the forefront of sport in UK universities”, and that “our approach to sport ensures that everyone can realise their potential.” But is this really true? Can it really be said that sport at our university is accessible to everyone?

The base cost of participating in most sports is over £200

It has long been known that university-level sport is an expensive business. Nottingham has been investing heavily in its sports facilities in recent years, most obviously with the construction of the £40 million David Ross Sports Village (DRSV). Which means, of course, somebody has to foot the bill.

A year’s David Ross sports membership costs at least £209, but this ‘Early Bird’ offer is only available until the 4th of October each year, at which point the price rises to £229. This is likely to catch out new students, who may not realise they want a sports membership before the deadline for the early offer. The large majority of sports groups require that any member has a DRSV membership in order to join, meaning that the base cost of participating in most sports is over £200. That’s before adding on membership of specific sports societies, kit, equipment hire, coaching, session fees – the list goes on.

Even your gender makes a difference – the membership fees for ladies and men’s teams of the same sport can vary by nearly £35

So, how much are those individual memberships? The answer depends on a number of factors: what type of sport it is, how experienced you are and whether you want to play competitively. According to prices listed on the Students Union website, the average cost of the cheapest membership is around £36. There’s a huge variation contained within that average though. The lowest basic membership starts at £5, whilst the most expensive one will cost you a whopping £125! Even your gender makes a difference – the membership fees for ladies and men’s teams of the same sport can vary by nearly £35.

If you want to play competitively, those membership fees can leap up significantly. Whilst for some sports, the difference between a ‘social’ (non-competitive) membership and a ‘performance’ (competitive) membership is a matter of £10, for others it is much more significant. For women’s hockey, a social membership is £30, whereas being on the 1st team will set you back £320 (and it’s a similar story for men’s hockey). Men’s rugby is £50 for a social membership and £130 for a competitive membership. 

There are a few sports for which the £229 David Ross membership is not required – triathlon, polo, powerlifting and snooker being some. Even Nottingham’s famed ice hockey team doesn’t require a gym membership. But there is more to the prices than meets the eye here, too. One former ice hockey player at Nottingham told Impact that, although they didn’t have to pay for a gym membership or starter kit, “we did eventually all need our own stuff (which costs a lot).” Beyond the obvious costs of kit, sessions, insurance and entering games, there are other hidden expenses that may not be obvious to students before joining. “The main hidden cost was transport; as hockey finished at 1am, the safest option was an Uber, which could cost up to £20.” 

As it is with ice hockey, it is so often these extra hidden expenses which can catch students out. An athletics membership, for example, is £40 for the year but, in order to train and compete, you’ll need to pay an extra £110 a year for a track pass, plus extras for attending BUCS competitions. Many societies will require you to buy their kit, a full set of which could cost you anywhere between £50-100. Even if it’s not obligatory, a student who wasn’t wearing the kit would be immediately marked out from their peers, putting those without sufficient finances in an awkward and potentially embarrassing position. 

It’s also true that becoming a member of any of Nottingham’s competitive teams requires a significant time commitment. Some teams expect attendance at training four or five times a week, plus time spent at the gym outside of training sessions, as well as spending weekends away at competitions. That’s before we mention socials! For students that rely on a part-time job to financially support their studies, this level of commitment is difficult to manage.

If you’re willing to cast your net a bit wider and try out some less mainstream sports, you can make some significant savings

Of course, being an athlete at the UK’s top sports university has its benefits: skills, friendship, health benefits and even the potential opportunity for progression into sport as a career. For some, those benefits justify the costs. As a former member of Nottingham’s Karate society told Impact: “It was definitely worth it! I trained 4 times a week for 2 hours, and it was much cheaper than clubs I’d gone to before uni. I didn’t ever have to sacrifice things because of the fees.”

Now, if all these prices are making your brow a little sweaty, there are options. An Aikido membership, for example, is just £5 for the year and £1 per session; whilst floorball is £15 for the year. If you’re willing to cast your net a bit wider and try out some less mainstream sports, you can make some significant savings. For some sports, scholarships are available for those students who show particular promise. Nottingham’s top level rowing scholarship (which includes financial support towards training and competition expenses, a gym membership, physiotherapy and more) has a very generous equivalent value of £12,000. Which, by the way, begs the question: just how much are non-scholarship students shelling out to be part of the team? If you don’t qualify for a scholarship, the Just Play scheme offers a solution. For £3 a session (or free with a sport and fitness membership), you can try out many of the sports Nottingham offers without committing to membership.

The fact remains, however, that if you’re a low income student and you want to play competitively in any of Nottingham’s top sports teams, it’s going to cost you a significant – and potentially unmanageable – amount of money.  “I thought it was outrageous that people had to pay gym membership,” says our former ice hockey player. “I understand why some of the prices are so high as insurance and coaching is expensive, but also the lack of subsidies for people who weren’t county-level athletes and just wanted to have fun was really poor.”

Without addressing these financial barriers at a wider level, Nottingham is going to continue to shut out talented potential athletes from their top teams. Perhaps it is time to consider the cost of sport at our university, so all Nottingham students, no matter their financial circumstances, can truly “realise their potential”.

Kit Sinclair

Featured image courtesy of Wesley Tingey via Unsplash. Image licence found here. No changes were made to this image.

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