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OpenPlay: it’s all about encouraging community ownership in London

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Sam Parton

OpenPlay.co.uk is a unique and interactive online platform that utilises sports facilities all over London and her varied boroughs. The aim is to get people more active by bringing to life too often idle facilities such as tennis courts, football pitches and various other sporting arenas. Who wants to slug it out in the gym, when you can get together with friends and revel in the infrastructure that your council probably already boasts? #VillageLondon sat down with OpenPlay's dynamic founder, Sam Parton, just two days before his wedding no less, to discuss the importance of empowering London to get active and making the most of the capital's diverse and at times idle sports' facilities.

Tell us what OpenPlay does?
OpenPlay is a market place for sports facilities and activities; it's all about making it easier for people to get active in London and beyond. It's matching up idle sports facilities, like tennis courts, football pitches, and activities taking place within them, like coaching sessions and holiday camps, and making it really easy for people to get involved. There's a big emphasis on outdoors, so parks, open spaces, schools, community sites, and to some extent leisure-centres but not your conventional Fitness First and gyms. A lot of these places are owned by local authorities and the goal is if you unearth all that information you can reverse the need for people to have to search for these things. Ideally they search for us instead and we can say "this tennis court's lying idle, we know you play, why not book it for 5pm today and have a game". It can connect you to other people who might want to play as well.

How did it all start?
Out of frustration. I was trying to run an under-15s football side and I was desperately trying to find pitches and yet plenty of them were already double-booked, not fit-for-purpose and plenty of other nightmares. On top of that the fluctuating numbers I had at my disposal; one week we'd have seven people, the next we'd have fifteen or sixteen. I had a technology background so I wanted to create something that would rectify these problems. I was convinced I wasn't the only one enduring them.

How do you source the areas and people wanting to use them?
The way we've approached this is to unearth all the supply. One of the major battles has been that the data out there has been very hit and miss. So we can source some of the supply data in terms of venues from local authorities and some, vaguely, from Sport England, but for the main we've had to go out ourselves. We've been doing that quietly over the past three years and now we have two and half thousand sports venues. The way people have found out about us has been through word of mouth. Search engine optimization has played its part, when you're unearthing data like that Google like it because it never really existed. With things like a Player Finder you're solving a problem for facilities so we get mentioned a lot in mailing lists and that's building our user numbers organically. We've never spent anything on marketing other than our time and we've got eighty thousand people coming to the site each month.

Are local authorities enthusiastic about you utilising their facilities?
When we first started there was less austerity cuts and as time has gone on there has been movement around us. One of the first things to be cut was spending for a lot of these assets. They've had no choice but to make cuts to operating costs and that's worked in our favour because we are able to help put money back into these facilities. It's all about making better use of assets already out there in London and encouraging community ownership. Sport England have struggled to encourage participation; they are spending £5 billion in trying to get more people active and the numbers have flatlined. They haven't invested at all in digital so our timing is perfect as they're beginning to realise the power of digital projects.

How is business?
In terms of traffic numbers it's very good. The good thing for us is we've been accepted into the world's largest start up accelerator called the MassChallenge. It really helps us sort out our strategy and revenue model. There have been challenges and struggles, making a system that is flexible enough. We won our first local authority contract with Brent at the beginning of April which has been very hard work but has opened a lot of doors. Working with councils can be a little tricky and each one is unique, but London's complex network of authorities certainly makes my job more interesting and diverse!

Is the focus on London?
We started in London because we knew there were these facilities there that weren't being used. It frustrated me to be honest. London has so much to offer and viewing some of these often overlooked facilities angered me. Why shouldn't we be trying to breathe new life into London's nuanced communities? By and large a lot of the infrastructure is already in place, its just about ensuring they are in a good nick and readily accessible to an engaged audience. The other reason I chose London is because I live here and I have encountered the same issues as others undoubtedly have. So I'm trying to create something for myself and hopefully many others will want to use it as well.

Are you hoping to bring a sense of character to London?
More than anything it is important to communicate that more people use these facilities than go to the gym. There are two key messages: firstly there are all these assets around you and a lot of them could do with more use and more money. The second is for local authorities to justify spending on them; the key to this is to prove who is using them, profiling those individuals and showing the outcome of that. If you didn't have something like OpenPlay, then this information just simply isn't available and some of London's facilities will lie redundant, which would be a great shame. I can't think of many other businesses that have so many wins on all levels. At a local level it's connecting people and increasing revenue and at a higher levels it's improving stats and showing who is using what to help reduce costs. A lot of funding out there is only for non-profit organisations, but the powers that be are now starting to realise that many innovators are private businesses and they can bring great value to important issues. It's a complex industry but one that is part of the disruptive challengers that are cropping up all over the place, like Uber and AirBNB.

How do you feel about gentrification in London?
It's hard to see the negatives of gentrification, in regards to what we do. I appreciate there is still a great divide between wealth and poverty in London, but in my line of work, if we can improve public spaces we can hopefully empower people to become proud of their local area. In parts of London, gentrification has had a positive impact on crime rates and other social issues and certainly we hope that our service will enable local communities to realise the existing potential of the facilities and landscapes at their disposal. We are also encouraging local councils and communities to invest in their areas, so although gentrification has become a politically charged word, in this instance I believe it can be viewed positively.

To find out more about OpenPlay visit openplay.co.uk. Follow OpenPlay on Twitter and Like them onfacebook.com/openplay.co.uk

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