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Will COVID-19 put the “Community” back into Sport?

As I write, the media is awash with news of the financial and societal impacts of Covid-19. Governments at all levels are spending money they might not have in the hope that Scott Morrison’s ‘snap back to the other side’ will happen as painlessly and quickly as possible. The reality is starting to bite though that life for all of us is likely to be very different, irrespective of the race to find a vaccine or effective treatment. Sport will not be exempt from this major shock to our lives.

In late summer, some of the worst bushfires in memory wreaked havoc across south eastern Australia. Major sporting events struggled to hold outdoor events as air quality reached hazardous levels. Covid-19 has equally left a trail of destruction, with social distancing restrictions cruelling sport at all levels. Major professional sports have been the earliest and highest profile casualty. Many professional sports are in disarray, with infighting between administrators and players over the rapidly diminishing spoils. Professional tennis players wring their hands over the risk of playing the US Open in New York in late August. Billion dollar investments in stadiums built to feed the beast of an ever growing professional industry are being mothballed. Plans to upgrade more modest community venues in the suburbs are being revived. Suburban and country footballers playing not for cash, but the love of the game – who would have thought!

As Waleed Aly noted in the Sydney Morning Herald in March, ‘Pandemics don’t change us, at least in the short term. They reveal us.’ So what has Covid-19 revealed about community sport and the broader landscape, and what will it look like when the pandemic bushfire recedes?

One, the ambitions of major sports for professionalism of delivery has been a house of straw. It is only very recently that national and state sporting organisations were lamenting that the delivery of sport was compromised by traditional community club delivery channels. Without picking on any one sport, it’s only a year ago that some cricket administrators called for the dismissal of long serving volunteers, calling their innings closed.

Two, despite the calls from some self serving sporting administrators at the height of lock down, that ‘sport is instrumental to the Australian character and must be allowed to proceed unhindered’, everyone has pretty much survived without too much impact. The data is somewhat ambiguous, but people have kept active and connected with each other in different ways. Perhaps we can do without sport in its pre Covid form.

Three, it looks like the ‘sporting industry’ as an oft used word, is on serious life support and in danger of being Corona’d. The myriad of occupations, courses and causes that have sprung up around sport will not survive. Family discretionary spending will be heavily affected, so funds will be scarce for children’s sport coaching lessons. Sport as a career path is likely to be less attractive than in the past.

Four, sporting clubs were already under tremendous pressure pre Covid-19.The demands of governing the club, complying with government legislation, attracting and retaining volunteers, engaging with existing and new participants, becoming more inclusive and diverse and running at a surplus saw many struggling under that increasing weight. Interrupted seasons and the demands of return to play protocol mean many may not survive. Just as the Covid-19 disease can be fatal for those individuals with co-morbidities such as obesity, the aftermath of the pandemic will see the demise of those clubs with pre-existing ailments, and not connected well to their communities.

The challenge for sport at a local level will be to remain relevant and true to purpose as a fun way to stay connected to others, and be healthy and active. Active recreation pursuits such as cycling and walking have and will increase in popularity, but sport in both organised and more casual formats will still be held dear by many Australians. Belonging to a group will remain a powerful motivator post the pandemic.

Covid-19 has simply accelerated change that was already underway, with a move away from structured competition already well under way. Sporting clubs that remain relevant to the needs and aspirations of their local community will thrive, but others will fail. And previously well resourced, broadcast rich NSO and SSO sports with oodles of community development staff will not be there to save the ones that founder. It is questionable whether councils will see club development as core business. Will sporting clubs be prepared to ask themselves the existential question, ‘If we were to fold, who would care?’

How will the local government as the landowner or land manager respond in a post Covid-19 world? As you would expect from councils, mostly slowly at first. But as they respond to less revenue and a more constrained fiscal environment over the next few years, ratepayers will demand change. Access to green space was already a contested area, but post Covid-19, this will accelerate. Multi million dollar investments in sporting pavilions, sporting reserves used by traditional sports only a handful of hours a week will be heavily scrutinised.

Perhaps the voices of walkers and bike riders will become better organised and louder, and receive greater attention and funding from their elected representatives. Seasonal sports may have to adapt to greater sharing with active recreational participants such as joggers, dog walkers and personal trainers. As community preferences change, councils will need to re-examine with fresh eyes the strategies and policies that traditionally govern the use of open space.

Sport as we know it was built from the ground up by passionate volunteers. It will be interesting to see how importantly communities view sporting clubs in a post Covid-19 world. Will work from home and a retreat to the suburbs leave people with more time to recreate? And if so, will it be at their local ‘community’ sporting club?

Ken Barton
Rec People Industry Expert
LinkedIn Ken Barton

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