Let's fund community sport!

5 Sep 2012

The public outcry and fallout following Australia’s Olympic performance has been disappointing to say the least. A shining example was Australia’s most senior international Olympic official Kevan Gosper essentially blaming the Federal Government for the lack of funding given to elite sport. So what can we expect the result of our post-Olympic soul searching? – More funding to be given to elite sport!

For me, the key to achieving international sporting success is more consistent funding to community grassroots sport. As a local Councillor, I have had my fair share of working with local sporting clubs in my municipality. Local sporting clubs are one of the most well organised and managed organisations in the community. It’s a place where families and individuals get together, compete with one another and make new and long lasting friendships.

My experiences as a Councillor in local government expose me to a number of issues ranging from ground usage, availability, infrastructure and equipment. I deal with this on a weekly basis where club representatives cry out for assistance due to growing participation rates. We have a variety of mechanisms available to support our clubs but it’s only a short term bandaid solution. To ensure community sport is properly funded and supported, it needs to establish greater long term partnerships between elite sporting associations, state and federal governments.

When I was employed by the Essendon Football Club as its Multicultural Development Officer back in 2008, I witnessed the important role an elite sporting club could play in the community. The club had a robust community program, focusing on delivering sporting programs to indigenous communities, multicultural communities, young people and women. As a supporter and former employee of the club, I was impressed with the club’s passion and philosophy, which was being genuine about making a difference.

A lot of these communities that Essendon dealt with had very basic needs, such as footballs, boots and the coordination of training programs. After so many years, I still recall the excitement shown by school children every time I arrived to deliver a football clinic. There were some real talent in those schools and with the proper training, equipment and guidance, they could very much become the next AFL superstar.

A key strength of Essendon’s community programs was the formation of working partnerships. The GLoBALL Program, which was established to help Victoria’s international students and migrants develop a sense of belonging and inclusion into our society, was a partnership between RMIT University, the Australian Federation of International Students and the City of Melbourne. We need more models like this if community sport is to be properly supported and funded. If properly funded, community sport and its programs are able to produce results to nurture sporting talent that will lead to positive results at the elite level.

The 2009 Crawford Report stated that the infrastructure and structure of community sport is under threat. The supply of volunteers, often the lifeblood of any club is under extreme pressure. If participation levels are to grow or even be sustained, sports administrators must find new ways to encourage and support volunteerism. Governments at all levels will have to increase their investment in community facilities if grassroots sport is to flourish.

Recommendations provided to the Federal Government include better initiatives to support former athletes to become mentors in community sporting clubs and greater support for volunteers to be equipped with the skills to successfully operate clubs. To me, community sporting clubs are the fundamental building blocks to successful results at the national and international stage. Name any athlete representing Australia at the Olympics or playing in elite competition across Australia, and most of them will have come from a community sporting club.

The Crawford report recognises that most of the community sport funding task falls to local government, where it is heavily under-resourced. The majority of local government expenditure in sport and recreation in 2000-01 was on venues, grounds and facilities. The funding is simply not co-ordinated appropriately across all levels of government. I agree with the report’s findings, community sports organisations find it difficult to apply for funding. It’s hard to get state and federal government’s attention amongst all their other priorities. Clubs have to position themselves financially to be able to drum up a funding case for themselves. As a majority of clubs are operated by volunteers, they simply do not have the time to put together business plans, develop financial spread sheets and seek out partnerships with other organisations. It’s impossible to fit this in the overall operations of the club such as training sessions and the management of games and competitions.

The Crawford report has systematically called for larger multi-use facilities to be built in local communities. Multi-use facilities have the potential to be more self-sustaining, catering for more than one sport to make communal features that would be more economically viable such as meeting rooms, function centres, canteens and change rooms that could be used by other community groups. There is also the potential to ensure greater and more constant use throughout the year, as seasonal sports come and go. This model is currently happening but what governments need to do is to help community sporting clubs understand what their requirements are and facilitate partnerships with other groups. We need to get the model right if community sport is to be properly supported.

We are very fortunate to live in a society where such a diversity of sporting choices is offered to families and communities. It’s time for state and federal governments to step up and do their bit. They need to introduce a funding model to develop Australia’s community sport programs and recreation facilities over the next decade. Rather than focusing only on funding elite sport, let’s raise the profile for grassroots sport too. We need to remember that it’s within community sport that future professional athletes develop their skills and interests.

Community sport is a venture worth investing in. Let’s give all the kids a chance to reach their potential!

Jieh-Yung is a Melbourne based writer and Deputy Mayor of the City of Monash. Follow him on twitter @jiehyunglo

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