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.

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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)

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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.

The why and where of Milk Bars in 2015

I was walking down the street a few nights ago when two people zoomed past on bikes. I could hear them talking and one of them exclaimed, “A milk bar! Do they still have those? Who would ever go there?”

I looked over my shoulder at the shop I’d just gone past and sure enough, there was nobody inside.

It got me thinking.

I live in a suburb with three milk bars* within a few minutes walk of my house. (*a milk bar, for those unaware, is like a very small grocery shop selling the bare essentials with a focus on lollies, ice-cream and tinned goods. In parts of the world it may be called a general store, a corner store, a deli or a dairy.) Why is that? In my whole life, I’ve never been so near to so many milk bars.

2 minutes 40 walk to this one: IMAG2941

3 minutes walk to this one:IMAG2943

6 minutes 40 walk to this one:

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Complete with core demographic of kids on holidays.

These are not sophisticated places. They have so little internet presence you can’t even find them on Google Maps. They don’t even have names. They exist principally for locals to pick up a few things.

I remember when I was a boy of about five, the milk bar near my family home closed. At that stage I’d only gone there to get lollies once or twice, but I sure was disappointed. I understood that as the end of an era. Retail was consolidating into a few big supermarkets and people didn’t need milk bars any more.

I subsequently moved to a house in North Fitzroy that had one milk bar nearby but I only used it once, when I was halfway through cooking and realised I needed another tin of tuna. It cost $7. So milk bars stopped figuring in my life. Until I moved to Clifton Hill. Then they were everywhere.

The three milk bars pictured above differ in their product offerings.

The closest one sells newspapers, has a coffee machine, sells Baklava and stocks a moderate range of groceries.

The second closest one does some deep-fried takeaway foods and stocks a minimal range of groceries.

The furthest one has DVDs, does dry-cleaning and stocks a minimal range of groceries.

There’s also, in this suburb, a continental supermarket, which I almost consider a milk bar. But since it calls itself a supermarket I will give it the benefit of the doubt. It is all of 40 metres away from one of the milk bars.

I was trying to explain to myself what it might be about the nature of this particular quiet, leafy, left-wing pocket of the inner north that made it so inclined to milk bars. Might the residents tend to be very forgetful and need to pop out for more cat food? Might they prefer not driving to the shops? Might they be opposed to big supermarkets? Any of these seemed unlikely given the rest of the inner north is demographically similar.

The reason, I eventually concluded, is the absence of big supermarkets. Clifton Hill is tucked into a bend of Merri Creek and that makes it probably uneconomical to put a big supermarket here. The above-mentioned Continental Supermarket does an okay job, and there’s a small FoodWorks around 15 minutes walk away too, (although it has earned the nickname ExpensiveWorks.)

I mapped the supermarkets of the region and I can report that it is 2.3 km to the nearest major supermarket, Smith St Woolworths, 2.4 km to Piedimontes supermarket and 3.3 km to Northcote plaza. That is apparently the magic distance you need for milk bars to start clustering.

In the following map, Supermarkets are black dots and the local milk bars are blue dots. I’ve put rings around them to indicate their catchments, for purely illustrative purposes. There are smaller, lighter red rings around the two small “supermarkets” that serve Clifton Hill.  What is most notable is Clifton Hill is rare in being so far from a major supermarket.

Supermarkets of the inner north
Click to open larger

In a lot of the inner north, the red circles overlap. This suggests higher population density, sterner competition, and perhaps lower willingness of residents to drive to the supermarket. I suspect in much of Melbourne, the red circles would be far apart, leaving gaps just like Clifton Hill, but the population density would not be enough to support such a density of milk bars.

I’d be very interested to hear about other regions that seem to support disproportionate numbers of milk bars. Do they also fall into the cracks, more than 2.4km from a major supermarket? Or are there other reasons you can think of for their continued existence?