Leisure hierarchy and sphere of influence

By Matt Burdett, 8 November 2017

On this page, we look at the sphere of influence of sports and tourist facilities, including the concepts of hierarchies, threshold populations, and range. We also see how the sphere of influence varies between urban and rural areas, with reference to the intra-urban hierarchy.

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  • Rome, Italy: The 72,000 seater Stadio Olimpico, one of Italy’s national stadia attracting visitors from around the world, is unusual in that it has almost no nearby public transport facilities, despite being remodelled several times since the first stadium on the site was opened in the 1930s.

Defining key terms

To understand the sphere of influence of a facility, it is important to recognise several related key terms including hierarchy, range and threshold population.

Leisure hierarchy

A hierarchy is when a phenomenon is placed in an order using grades or classes placed in sequence (Mayhew, 2015). In geography, the most common feature that is organised in a hierarchy is settlement. The bigger the settlement, the higher it is towards the top. At the same time, the fewer of that type of settlement, the higher it appears. The diagram below shows how there are few large settlements but many smaller settlements:

Nested hierarchy of leisure.png

  • A basic settlement hierarchy

Sports and tourist facilities can also be placed in a hierarchy. When looking at leisure facilities and how they are spread across different sizes of urban settlement, we can usually identify that facilities are part of ‘nested hierarchy’ in which each stage of the hierarchy includes the level(s) below. This means that the bigger settlements have the features of the other smaller settlements lower in the hierarchy.

Hierarchies can also be organised according to other factors such as:

  • Importance: The more important sporting facilities such as national stadia go towards the top, while the less important such as recreational football pitches go to the bottom.
  • Frequency: The least common facility goes to the top, while the most common goes to the bottom.
  • Size: The bigger the capacity of the facility, the nearer it goes to the top.

Sphere of influence

The theory of ‘sphere of influence’ in the geographical study of sport is borrowed from the study of retail environments. It describes where the customers at a particular retail location are from, and explains why they attend that location instead of a neighbouring location. Sometimes this is also called the ‘catchment area’.

A larger settlement will attract people from further away than a smaller settlement. In practice, there may well be some overlap, as individual people make decisions based on a variety of factors other than distance.

In the study of the sphere of influence for sporting events, the sphere of influence refers to the total area from where people come to attend the event. If the event is small, it will likely have a small sphere of influence – i.e. people will only come to it from nearby. If it is a large event, it may have a sphere of influence that extends around the globe. However, the features of the event will be balanced against the desire of individuals to participate or support in the event and there are a number of geographical factors that link to this.

The sphere of influence can be shown in a typical map. The image below shows how smaller places have a smaller sphere of influence. (The sphere of influence is shown by dotted lines.) Note how the central area’s sphere of influence is so large you can only see a small section of the bigger circle.

  • A theoretical map of the sphere of influence. Sheffield City Council, 2011. South Yorkshire Residential Design Guide.

In leisure terms, the sphere of influence means the area from which people will be attracted to a sports or tourist facility. The higher up the hierarchy the facility, the bigger the area from which it will attract people.


The range is the maximum distance that a consumer is willing to travel to use the facility. In practical terms it is the limit of the sphere of influence.

Factors affecting the sphere of influence

Threshold population

Threshold population is the minimum number of people required for that facility to be viable. The smaller the threshold population, the smaller the sphere of influence.

Governments and commercial organisations generally have guidelines that suggest a minimum number of people for any given facility. Some examples are:

  • Education in Hong Kong: There should be 765 children aged 6-11 years old for a primary school with 30 classrooms. (HKPD, 2014)
  • USA retail: grocery stores require between 20000 and 25000 people (Stephens, 2015)
  • EU definitions of urban: 300 people per km² and 5000 people in total (Eurostat, 2017)

However, it is very hard to find accurate and reliable figures for threshold populations in relation to leisure facilities. Some estimates for leisure facilities are shown in the table below (Nagle and Cooke, 2017).

Community size

Recommended facilities

Activities offered

Village 500-1500

Community hall

Community open space

Mobile library

Badminton, keep fit, yoga, football, cricket

Small country town, 2500-6000

As above plus:

Tennis courts

Sports hall

Swimming pool

As above plus tennis, netball, gym, hockey


As above plus:

Specialist sports venues

Golf courses, skateboard parks, bowling green

As above plus bowling, golf, skateboarding, judo, karate


Sports stadia

Athletics grounds

As above plus home grounds of sports clubs (football, rugby, hockey, athletics grounds)

Capital city

National sports centre for selected sports

As above, but for national teams

Transport facilities

The existence of good transport links can significantly extend the sphere of influence of a tourist or sports facility. For example, most major sports stadia have public transport hubs adjacent to them, such as railway stations. London’s Olympic stadium in 2012 involved the complete redesign of Stratford Railway Station as a way to ensure that people could arrive at the Games from much further away.

In the UK, local government is responsible for ensuring that facilities are placed within easy reach of local people. The table below shows the expected journey time for people to reach different services, such as local services (like a post box or a public telephone), bus stops or basic health and education services such as a family doctor or an elementary school. According to the guidance, a 5 minute walk corresponds to 400 metres for a non-disabled person. As the table shows, the accessibility of facilities is greater within central areas than in rural areas. (Sheffield City Council, 2011)

  • Table showing the expected distance (shown in time) for people from different types of settlement to get to different services. Sheffield City Council, 2011. South Yorkshire Residential Design Guide.

Other factors

Other factors affecting the sphere of influence include:

  • Functions of nearby facilities – if nearby facilities do the same thing, then they will have a smaller sphere of influence as they share the population
  • Competition with other facilities – if a nearby facility is better at providing a service, that facility will have a larger sphere of influence. For example, if a local gym does not have a pool, a gym further away might be more attractive to people and therefore have a larger sphere of influence
  • Characteristics of local population (including affluence) – in some places, identical services may have a smaller sphere of influence due to the difficulties of accessibility

Sphere of influence for different kinds of sporting and touristic facility

Some examples of specific facilities and the relationship to sphere of influence are listed below:

  • Neighbourhood parks are found nearby to where people live. They have a small sphere of influence.
  • Neighbourhood gyms are similar to neighbourhood parks. They are often located in ‘high street’ areas, i.e. shopping districts which cater to local people.
  • City stadiums are generally found in the inner city for historical reasons, or on the edge of the city where they have been built due to the lower cost of land.
  • National parks are almost always found in areas further away from urban centres. However, they are often not in the most remote areas because the point of designating an area as a national park is to protect it from visitors. Remote areas don’t usually have many visitors and so aren’t often given national park status. This is partly why many national parks are within a few hours drive of major cities.

The intra-urban leisure hierarchy

The diagram below shows how leisure facilities are spread out in urban areas. In general, leisure facilities are concentrated in the central urban area. More modern facilities such as large out-of-town shopping areas are often found on the urban-rural fringe (the edge of the city) where land prices are lower.

  • Intra-urban spatial hierarchy. Source: Geographypods, 2017 [likely based on Nagle and Cooke, 2017]

The two main factors that affect the distribution of these facilities are cost of land, and historical influences.

Cost of land

The larger the facility, the more land it uses. More land means the total cost of the land required is higher. Some leisure activities don’t make much money (such as athletics grounds), so they can’t afford the land in the middle of the city and they have to go to the outskirts. This links to bid-rent theory, which suggests that there is competition for land in urban areas, and that each competitor will pay the maximum price it can afford.


There are some facilities near the city centre that take up large amounts of space, which were planned in the early development of the modern city when it was difficult to travel outside of the city for open space. Examples include major parks, such as Hyde Park in London and Central Park in New York. Similarly, many football grounds are found in the inner city (or the ‘transition zone’) because they were originally built when the spectators were living and working nearby in the factories which have now closed down. These facilities have been ‘left behind’ as the city grew around them.


Eurostat, 2017. Urban-rural typology http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Urban-rural_typology Accessed 7th November 2017.

Geographypods, 2017. The Leisure Hierarchy – Toulouse. http://www.geographypods.com/7-leisure-at-local-scale-sport.html Accessed 10th November 2017.

HKPD [Hong Kong Planning Department], 2014. Chapter 3 : Community Facilities. http://www.pland.gov.hk/pland_en/tech_doc/hkpsg/full/ch3/ch3_text.htm#c9 Accessed 7th November 2017.

Mayhew, S., 2015. A dictionary of geography. Oxford University Press, USA.

Nagle, G., and Cooke, B., 2017. Geography: Course Companion. Oxford University Press.

Sheffield City Council, 2011. South Yorkshire Residential Design Guide. Studio REAL.

Stephens, A., 2015. Grocery Store Chain Gambles on Downtown Cleveland https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/family-grocers-gamble-on-downtown-cleveland Accessed 7th November 2017.

Leisure hierarchy and sphere of influence: Learning activities


  1. Define ‘leisure hierarchy’. [1]
  2. Describe the types of facility found at different levels of the leisure hierarchy. [3]
  3. Define ‘sphere of influence’. [2]
  4. Explain what is meant by ‘threshold population’. [2]
  5. Suggest reasons why the sphere of influence varies for the following features [2 per feature]:
    1. A local gym
    2. A local league football ground
    3. A national park
    4. A national stadium

6. Explain why some facilities that require a large land area, such as a football ground or a park, are found near the centre of the city. [4]

7. Explain why most facilities that require large amounts of land, such as out-of-town shopping centres, are found on the urban-rural fringe. [4]

Other tasks

For a city of your choice:

  • Look up the city on Google Maps or a similar maps application
  • Use the search function to plot the locations of the following features:
    • Parks
    • Ice rinks
    • Indoor shopping centres
    • Sports stadia
    • Other leisure, tourism and sports facilities of your choice
  • Place the facilities into a hierarchy according to how many there are in your city
  • Describe the distribution of each leisure facility. (Are they clustered? Found in certain parts of the city?)
  • Suggest reasons why the distribution of the facility does or does not follow the expected pattern of the intra-urban leisure hierarchy.

© Matthew Burdett, 2018. All rights reserved.

All secondary material on this site is clearly referenced and may be subject to copyright restrictions by the original authors. All original material on this page is subject to copyright.