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12.10.2021 - Ausgabe: 5/2021

Youth On-Demand Culture – A boost for Informal Sports

By Prof. Tim Bindel (Executive Director, Institute of Sports Science, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz)

© Rawpixel.com / stock.adobe.com

Smartphones and other possibilities of digitality have found their way into people's everyday lives as much as other terminal devices and are considerably changing leisure time in affluent countries. This also applies to the current generation of youth in Western Europe, who have grown up in a world of unlimited availability (Rosa, 2018). Supply and demand within sports culture are also currently developing along the lines of digital possibilities, challenging science and practice to reflect on the future of movement, play and sports in our society. In informal recreational sports, the new needs and the corresponding structural and commercial offers can be well observed (Bindel, Cuvalo & Strasser, in prep.). Notwithstanding the criticism of the newly emerged informal sports worlds, it can be stated that the so-called on-demand culture is providing for an upswing of informal sports and probably even more intensively in the future, if the corresponding constructional support is planned appropriately. This issue is discussed in the paper, starting with a brief definition of informal sports and an introduction to the phenomenon of the so-called on-demand culture. 


Informal sports - an important field especially for young people

While sports activities at schools and clubs can be differentiated according to so-called sportive roles of action, these roles enter into a symbiosis in informal sports. The active participants organise their own sports activities and are also responsible for any mediation channels (cf. Bindel, 2008). The proportion of young people who take up this challenge is - depending on the definition of sports practised - between 50 and 90 % (ibid.). Informal sports are thus not only the most popular sports setting in the youth phase. However, its self-responsibility entails various problems. For example, many of the popular activities seem to have an exclusive potential because above all, motor, social and also material prerequisites are unequally distributed. Furthermore, there are also space issues related to the fact that there are no advocacy groups that could make it possible to keep sports facilities free. Apart from communal and municipal sports facilities, the active participants are therefore mostly dependent on so-called sports opportunities and - as simple as that may sound - on good weather. From an educational point of view, informal sports are of outstanding importance, especially in adolescence, because the activities can generally be described as something open to interpretation and can thus be developed individually - alone, in pairs or in groups. This applies to scenes of so-called trend sports and skateboarding as well as to quite conventional forms such as playing football or jogging. Here, everyone can decide for themselves how sports are played, which even affects the perspectives of meaning (Kurz, 1977), which can vary between expression, daring, competition, impression, health, and performance. These possibilities for self-design are unique, especially in sports, and promote creative development, the ability to negotiate and even identity work, considering that it is precisely the informal sports scenes that can become life plans. 

To get an idea of what exactly is meant by informal sports, you only have to take a look around the city in the summer months. You will see both the old and the new types of sports. Sometimes the informal is just a kind of necessity, because people want to flexibly play a classic sports game (like badminton, cycling or table tennis), other times the informal is even the spirit of change, because new attitudes and values can be observed. This applies, for example, to skateboarding, BMXing, surfing and snowboarding, but recently also to fitness scenes (e.g. calisthenics), where athletes present a certain attitude towards life and question traditional competitive sports. Informal sports are the engine of our sports culture, because here we perceive changes and observe developments that are quickly adapted and popularised by commercial providers and companies. This also seems to be a particular issue for young people. 


Youth and the on-demand culture  

Anyone who is 18 years old or younger on the publication date of this magazine probably cannot remember life without a smartphone. In my opinion, the revolutionary breakthrough is less a result of the internet itself but more of the spatial and temporal independence in the form of a portable terminal device. At the same time, the smartphone in general can hardly be understood as a phone any more, but as a multifunctional tool that can increasingly be considered a complement to the human body (Jörissen, 2017). The JIM Study 2020 (Youth, Information, Media) clearly shows that the smartphone is of central importance in all areas of young people's lives growing up. 96 percent of 12 to 19-year-olds have their own smartphones and were able to experience and adapt the corresponding usage behaviour of their parents as children. However, it would be misleading to call up a new technologised youth and to put it in the foreground of pedagogical discussions, since the so-called apps by which the smartphones are activated hardly require any knowledge of technology. The fact is that no less than the forms of togetherness, communication and self-/world-view have been radically realigned with the smartphone since toddlerhood (Wiesemann, 2021). Access to the world - in my opinion, this is the best way to summarise it - is on demand and now makes even food in urban areas available in less than 10 minutes. The same has long been true for entertainment media or knowledge. Google, WhatsApp, Spotify, Netflix and Youtube have currently become forms of life-relevance for young people that also have a say in their leisure time life. For this article, we will briefly outline five essential areas in which such a youth on-demand culture is noticeable:


  • Entertainment and games

Films, podcasts and music can be made instantly available via various streaming providers. Humour plays a role especially in smaller clips that are in demand with other providers. The digital games market has clearly shifted to the smartphone; it is the most frequently used device for digital games, according to the JIM Study 2020. 


  • Experience and documentation

For many young people, experiences were already recorded in their childhood with the digital photo function of their parents' smartphones. Life has become a stage on which one performs oneself, but on which others also appear. Pop cultural events and presences in special places are digitally recorded and the selfie can be considered one of the most significant developments in leisure photography, a pictorial documentation in which no real experience but the experience itself can be recorded and shared.


  • Knowledge and mediation

Youtube has grown to become a key youth learning medium, which was also used by schools during the 2019/2020 pandemic lockdown periods. Educational videos, but also content not intended for technical learning, are used extensively and are opinion-forming. Search engines also present factual knowledge that makes it necessary to rethink school learning content. Spatial orientation is not only simplified by digital maps, but also completely taken over by machines. 


  • Consumption and ownership

Consumption is becoming more and more available at the push of a button; in addition to media entertainment, it also includes consumer goods, food, daily shopping and other things you just fancy. Ownership in the form of valuable objects or life-relevant things is becoming increasingly uninteresting, also because many things are being replaced by sharing cultures. The valuable hi-fi system, the record collection, but also one's own car are no longer the standard of on-demand culture. Providers like Apple are working to ensure that the instruments necessary for digital lifestyles still have the character of the valuable.


  • Communication and social life

A fundamental development from a sociological point of view has taken place in social life, for which long-term appointments are no longer necessary. Forms of communication have also shifted into the realm of short messages, which, together with voice messages and emojis, are changing youth language.

Overall, it can be said that on-demand culture has developed into the foundation of youth popular culture. Characteristic of the protagonists of this culture is the habit of quick satisfaction of needs, the desire for (figuratively) shareable emotions, the release from the fixed and the partly problematic recognition of media opinion models. All of this leads to increased quality demands on leisure time, which basically negate the long-term, time-fixed and monotonous "hobby". The on-demand culture produces a creative oligarchy in which only a few creators determine consumption and the relevant content for very many users. Various youth sociological, psychological, school organisational, or even pedagogical topics can be derived from this characterisation. In this article, an application to the field of youth sports will now be made.


Sports in the on-demand culture

The outlined characterisation of on-demand culture can be seen as an explanation for changes in youth sports that have already been observable in the commercial sector for some time. The new offers in the sports and exercise-oriented leisure sector include, in addition to the indoor soccer facilities, climbing and bouldering halls that have existed and been popular for some time, now also increasingly trampoline, play and adventure offers, as well as covered skate parks. They are understandable reactions to the increased leisure time expectations in that they are independent of the weather and can be demanded flexibly - booked today, visited tomorrow and simply get going. Two other developments also seem to fit the on-demand characteristics: Obstacle run events, in which you tackle obstacles in nature, resembling a military operation, and fitness offers in studios. While the former stage the experience and its pictorial distribution and are thus very present, especially in the media, the latter has insidiously integrated itself into global everyday life over the last two decades. Body-oriented weight training and wellness scenes correspond in many facets to a modern sports culture, which is also an on-demand culture. The gym with its increasing number of members - also in the youth sector - is open 24/7, the actions and physical projects can be fed into a digital culture of negotiation and the necessary spaces of expertise are integrated into the popular media, so that the smartphone is not only relevant but necessary within this context (Bindel & Theis, 2020). 

While the new aforementioned sports worlds allow for self-organisation and self-mediation, their use involves costs, so it can be assumed that it is commercial spaces of informal sports that are becoming more popular. But the purely informal acts are also changing with the new needs. Worth mentioning here are calisthenics facilities, which can currently be interpreted as quite low-cost possibilities of sportive urban development. Initiatives that enable and network flexible sports activities are also interesting, for example, when it comes to networking different urban offers from swimming to visiting the fitness studio to short-term use in a dance school. In addition, app-based platforms are currently emerging that help you organise informal sports activities a little better, for example by registering at streetball courts or other areas and getting an overview of how many others you will be active with. 

These are all developments that, on the one hand, react to the increased expectations of leisure and, on the other hand, carry the ideology of on-demand culture - sports must be attractive and immediately available. Similar to the digital ideas market, the real leisure market is also subject to the dictates of the creative oligarchy. This is just as visible in the constant make-overs of fitness equipment and concepts as it is in the market for recreational sports equipment and facilities, which are currently built rather inexpensively because future trends are hardly foreseeable. However, an overview of youth sports worlds shows that commercial and informal sports offers and opportunities are far more flexible to fit into the on-demand culture than school and club-based arrangements. In this context, school sports are potentially changeable and would have to address the question of empowerment for recreational sports activities in the future. It should be noted, for example, that a visit to a trampoline or climbing hall requires certain basic motor skills. The classic sports club, however, is very poorly positioned for the flexible and demanding leisure culture. The idea of permanent employment, the elaborate improvement of performance over a years-long process and the lack of opportunities for variance characterise a retro sport that still plays a major role in our culture, but is already crumbling. New concepts are urgently needed! The commercial and informal sports described above, which have adapted well to on-demand needs, can, on the other hand, be described as so-called neo-sports, which make the offer complete, especially with individual fitness sports opportunities for training and a variety of commercial offers for playful sports activities.


Consequences for the design of informal sports

In the future urban and communal spaces will be increasingly interpreted as leisure spaces, also because centralising and digital consumption structures and more flexible mobility options are creating free space that is partly made available for people's leisure needs. This is where we will have to respond to the needs of on-demand cultures and, with a view to an equitable distribution of places of action, not only include fitness sports, but also opportunities for moving games and multi-perspective sports. However, this requires research findings that assess the current situation. A first step forward is the approach of Bindel, Cuvalo and Strasser (in prep.), who link current usage behaviour with the conception of equipment-related informal areas. The spaces currently available in the urban space are noticeably focussed on a certain type of sports behaviour. It is mainly strength, ball and roller sports that are offered. In combination with the mostly stage-like architecture, this offer has the consequence that we find a strong overload of male, well-trained and athletically skilled users. If an inclusive range of spaces is to be created - which also empowers female youths - there is an acute mandate to the play and sports equipment manufacturers, and subsequently to the cities and municipalities, to potentially adopt new concepts. The new demand would be to provide an on-demand culture, especially for young people, with inclusive opportunities for mobile leisure activities by creating spaces that require only few motor skills to play creatively and in motion, that simply require talking, no balls, no boards and no muscles. Basically, it's about playgrounds for young people and their contemporary and exclusive design. The pressure is growing, because the smartphone provides many young people with exactly the same things - just immobile, with all the negative consequences that have already been extensively discussed in the past.



Bindel, T. (2008). Soziale Regulierung in informellen Sportgruppen (Social regulation in informal sports groups). Hamburg: Czwalina. 

Bindel, T., Cuvalo, K. & Strasser, S. (in prep.) Der Jugendspielplatz als Element moderner Sportraumgestaltung. (The youth playground as an element of modern sports space design.) Abstract for the dvs University Conference in Kiel 2022.

Bindel, T. & Theis, C. (2020). Fitness als Trend des Jugendsports – eine Wissenskultur. (Fitness as a trend in youth sports - a culture of knowledge.) In Forum Kinder- und Jugendsport. DOI 10.1007/s43594-020-00001-w

Jörissen, B. (2017). Digitale Medien und Digitale Netzwerke: Herausforderungen für die Kulturelle Kinder- und Jugendbildung. (Digital Media and Digital Networks: Challenges for Cultural Children and Youth Education.) In B. Kammerer (Ed.), Streetwork und mobile Zugänge in der Offenen Jugendarbeit: (K)ein Thema?! Nürnberger Forum der Kinder- und Jugendarbeit 2016. (Street work and mobile access in open youth work: (Not) an issue?! Nuremberg Forum of Child and Youth Work 2016.) (pp. 101-119). Nuremberg: emwe-Verlag.

Kurz, D. (1977). Elemente des Schulsports. (Elements of school sports.) Schorndorf: Hofmann.

Rosa, H. (2018). Unverfügbarkeit. (Unavailability.) Vienna: Residenz.

Wiesemann, J. (2021). Medienpraktiken der frühen Kindheit. Der familiäre Alltag des Smartphones. (Media practices in early childhood. The everyday family life of a smartphone.) In ZSE Journal of Sociology of Education and Socialisation, 3 (41), pp. 264-282. 


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