What sport is most space efficient?

I was reading in Bloomberg about the closure of a whole lot of Golf Courses in America. They’d been built not so much for playing golf on, and more as amenity to drive up the price of surrounding homes.

It got me thinking about how I used to attend the Defence Property Interdepartmental Committee back in 2005 and 2006 and all the arguments that used to rage about shutting down the Australian Defence Force’s many under-utilised golf courses. (link for context)

But it made me think about the efficiency of golf as a sport. It’s not easy to understand how golf courses make money in cities. Golf seems extremely land-intensive.

I wondered how it compared to other sports.

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 11.39.22 am

Golf is by far the worst of the lot. I calculated this by assuming four players per hole on an 18 hole course, and applying US golf association rules on the recommended minimum area for a golf course, of 60 hectares.

The question of the land-intensity of sports is – perhaps surprisingly – something I have thought about often. But never before had I bothered to graph it. The reason I’ve pondered it is because of some tennis courts near my house that are used as netball courts on weeknights. As tennis courts, they are lightly used, but when it’s netball night they are brimming with noise and excitement and there are cars parked for miles around.

In the courts at right, you can see the netball court (yellow lines) encompassing the tennis court (white lines)
In the courts at right, you can see the netball court (yellow lines) encompassing the tennis court (white lines)

Even though the courts are used for netball only a few hours a week, these courts probably mean netball to more people than tennis.

The land intensity of sports is a pretty important question for governments trying to make participation in sports accessible, cheap and convenient as the density of our cities rises. When you have to rent space to play on, it makes sense for that space to be minimal.

Here’s another chart, with a truncated vertical axis to show the most efficient sports in more detail. Tennis has a few different entries, because I first measured it on tennis court area, but then, after I added table tennis, I realised I needed to count the recommended area for playing, not just the court area. This means the numbers are not perfectly comparable (I haven’t added areas outside the boundary lines for rugby or cricket or soccer)

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 11.39.07 am

Seemingly, the most efficient sport on the graph is table tennis, counting two players and a table of 4.18 square metres. But that’s not realistic. Players don’t stand on the table.  The most realistic actual entry is pool, which two players can enjoy in 18 square metres, assuming a standard 8-foot table. (I guess that’s why there’s pool tables in pubs, not basketball courts.)

The most land efficient sport in which you would plausibly break a sweat (or break an ankle) is squash. Squash I seem to remember being popular in the 1980s. My dad used to play when he was a lot younger. I’m not sure why it fell from favour, but perhaps Donald Rumsfeld’s enthusiasm for it has something to do with it. Anyway, on a squash court, two adults can do serious work on their heart health in just 62 square metres, making it a sport that is ripe for a comeback in the ever more crowded 21st century. (nb. this doesn’t calculate three dimensional area, and squash courts are tall).

Cricket, meanwhile, comes out of this looking rather bad. My calculations use 17,000 square metres as the size of the field, which is the approximate area of the SCG. Leaving half the players on the sideline is what really ruins cricket’s numbers, because at any time there are only 13 players actually playing. It’s almost as bad as golf. AFL, which uses the exact same fields as cricket, manages to put almost 3 times as many bodies into the same space.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

8 thoughts on “What sport is most space efficient?”

  1. Fascinating. Personally I do gymnastics, which for competition purposes can be quite space efficient (6 apparatuses in a tennis arena for example). However the training gyms are anything but, with large foam pits and several variations of the same apparatus being used. Of course a real gymnastics centre doesn’t have a lot of leeway for multisport purposes.

    I agree golf courses (especially suburban ones) seem to be extremely space wasteful.


    1. How many people do gymnastics at once? From what I’ve seen at the Olympics, just one at a time. One on a tennis court would make it a bit more efficient than hockey (1 per 200sqm). Does that sound right?


      1. It varies on competition but rod laver arena would have up to 6 competing at any 1 time for men and up to 4 competing for women. Qualifiers you’ll have a lot competing at one time, as it comes down to finals the pace slows and individual routines are put in the spotlight. Much like a tennis competition I guess.

        But casually, for instance weekend warriors doing some adult gymnastics, could pack a training gym surprisingly tightly.

        Wow so much to think about! But yes at its worst gymnastics can be really space inefficient, At the height of top competition you’ll have 1 at a time competing in a large indoor arena, additionally there will be a complete gym setup out back for warm up as well.


  2. You need to consider the number of matches or games that can be played per day or week or year. Hockey, which I play, is actually much more efficient than soccer as the synthetic surface and lighting (plus shorter matches) mean as many as seven games of hockey are played on a Saturday on a single field and more than fifteen over the weekend including Friday night. Additionally no downtime is required between seasons to allow the turf to recover. For the same reasons, netball is very efficient.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A more complete assessment would look at all infrastructure. The perfect sport is one that uses minimal infrastructure, i.e. preferably outdoors and on a low-maintenance surface, but can be played when it rains. I’d say hockey fits the bill! The one inefficiency of Hockey is the ratio of umpires to players, which is higher than netball (1:11 vs 1:14).


  3. This is something I also think a lot about, particularly with skateboarding. It’s very common for skateparks to be built next to a set of grassy soccer or cricket fields, and the small skatepark is generally busy with people, while the much larger grass fields next to it sit idle. Not only that, but those large grass fields require expensive watering and maintenance, while skateparks require an occasional sweep with a broom, which the skaters bring themselves whenever the dirt and leaves get too bad.

    Every new skatepark is immediately busy with people. There’s massive unmet demand. And yet councils keep ploughing money into watering and mowing their little-used grass fields.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I used to be a very keen squash player through the 80s and 90s, and during this period it was very common for squash courts to be converted into gyms as they could hold more people per square metre, and therefore generate more revenue. Squash courts in inner-city areas were also being converted into apartment building at the same time, for similar reasons.

    Gyms really struck me as big money spinners – not only can you pack a lot of people into them, you get a massive revenue flow from the 90% (a guess) of members who pay for a year and then never attend after the first couple of weeks.

    Liked by 1 person

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