A drop in participation rates, club closures and further financial hardship are just some of the challenges facing community sport as millions of Australians prepare to return to the training track with their local clubs.
The recent lifting of restrictions regarding outdoor gatherings signalled the first step towards the imminent resumption of organised sport. But while clubs across the land await approval from state bodies to officially welcome members back, there is concern some might not be able to survive the effects of the coronavirus outbreak – and the impact that will have on social, mental and physical wellbeing.
The Australian Sports Foundation, a charitable organisation which claims to have fundraised more than $350m since its inception in 1986, has painted a grim picture for community sport following a survey of approximately 500 clubs nationwide; although competition might soon resume, clubs will continue to suffer from a lack of funding while experiencing the same operating cost.
Winter sports have suffered the brunt of the shutdown, but Patrick Walker, the foundation’s chief executive, says indoor contact sports such as basketball and martial arts could be hardest hit. “They’ll be among the last to start up again,” he tells Guardian Australia. “That means they’ll be without any income or activity for a longer period. And they fear they’ll lose people to other sports that can start up sooner.”
Cam Vale, the chief executive of Baseball Australia, is optimistic his sport will start on schedule this summer and that participation rates will remain. “The backbone of our sport is grassroots,” Vale says. “About 85% of our participants and the clubs have got through unscathed. The way things are tracking, it’s our hope that we should be back up and running on time.
“But the uncertainty creates challenges for local clubs with existing sponsors and the like. The financial challenges leading to a drop in participation is a great unknown. For kids that normally juggle two or three sports, there is the possibility they’ll have to drop one of them. But we have a very committed baseball community.”
At the start of this month, Scott Morrison and the national cabinet identified the resumption of community sport as a key driver in the fight against a mental health crisis brought on by Covid-19. But Walker says merely green lighting competition at the grassroots isn’t enough. “The first thing we want to do is shine a light on it,” Walker says. “Most of the focus in sport is about when the NRL is coming back, when the AFL is coming back. But for your average Australian, community sport is where it’s at. We need to elevate the importance of this crisis in the minds of policy makers and in the philanthropic community.
“We want to build a case to raise funds and inject funds into community sport. Because without those clubs, social cohesion, inclusion, physical and mental health will decline. It’s already not great. This could be a big issue for Australia.”
Vale says juggling the return of organised sport and the ongoing effects of Covid-19 on the community will be a challenge, but one that must be met. “The biggest concern is that grassroots sport is directly connected to day-to-day life,” Vale says. “Therefore people who have been stood down from jobs, are juggling home schooling with working from home, the impact that this situation has had on them and their families is the thing that will potentially impact on grassroots.
“It’s that balance of people who are doing it tough financially and socially against the piece that because of everything we’re going through, sport can be a great catalyst for people to re-engage. The fabric of grassroots sport is local engagement.
“Sport is secondary to health and to family, but it’s a very close secondary part that is deeply connected to people’s personal and family wellbeing.”