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A moment in time for community sport

Sport was central to the public discourse as we moved inexorably towards physical distancing and social restrictions in response to the arrival of COVID-19 on these shores.

First it was “What will footy look and feel like with no crowds?” Next, we were asking “How many rounds will we get in?”

Then reality set in.

Since that point, we’ve been through the full cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

The tribalism and passion that sustains global sport fans has been taken away, and we miss it.

However, this crisis is revealing a lot more about the importance of sport.

We don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone

Community sport is reliant on people congregating. Indeed, in many ways, that’s its purpose. It binds people together, building empathy, respect and social capital. This is especially true in country communities.

The structure, connections, fun and enjoyment help tackle lifestyle diseases like loneliness, physical inactivity, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and mental health issues.

‘Removing people’s ability to be within a small distance of each other, has revealed sport’s intrinsic value,’ says Dr Jonathan Robertson, Lecturer in Sport Management at Deakin University. ‘People are losing communication, teamwork, training and a really important third place, after work and home, where they can play and see friends.’

‘This strange situation has helped us unpick what sport has become,’ adds Dr Robertson. ‘It started off as a game, recreation and leisure time pursuit. Of course, over the past 30 years, we have also morphed that into a mega business supported by commercial interests and broadcast deals.’

Dr Robertson feels the loss of elite sport as a social connector but is more concerned about community sport – a vital social glue.

Physical activity is only part of the picture

People are staying active. They’re walking, running, cycling and participating in virtual classes. In the UK, new research on the impact of social distancing has shown that almost two thirds of adults consider exercise to be more important than ever.

‘Community sport adds a crucial layer to simple health and fitness – that of social cohesion and social capital,’ argues Dr Robertson. ‘It’s the package of club and team atmosphere, combined with physical benefits, that feels irreplaceable.’

Short-term focus on retention

With this magic blend so hard to recreate, the immediate priority for clubs should be retention and innovation. ‘Local clubs are held together by small groups of highly engaged individuals and a shared sporting interest, so anything they can do to retain that is a positive,’ says Dr Robertson, who recognises that even retention is fraught with challenges.

'People are losing communication, teamwork, training and a really important third place, after work and home, where they can play and see friends.'

Dr Jonathan Robertson,
Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

John O’Sullivan from the Changing the Game Project in the USA, recently highlighted a range of issues that will impact parents’ propensity to re-enrol their kids in the same activities when community sport is possible again.

Many parents are enjoying seeing more of their kids, some of whom are enjoying the time away from sport and switching to other fun activities, whilst a lot of families will have less money available for sport on the other side of this pandemic.

So, whilst some community sports clubs in Australia are doing a great job of keeping their members connected through virtual challenges, training and catch-ups, getting to know how members’ lives are changing – and how they’re thinking and feeling – will be critical to retaining a solid base.

Reimagining the future

‘When we resume local sport, clubs need to be mindful they are opening their doors and welcoming everyone,’ was the standout quote from Dr Bridie O’Donnell on a recent episode of the ABC’s Offsiders.

It’s a message with which Dr Robertson wholeheartedly concurs. ‘This is a great opportunity for community sport, and the clubs within it, to remember the inherent nature of recreation and play which, too often, has been overlooked or forgotten in recent times – often due to competition structures that feel like they’ve existed forever.’

‘There has to be a strengthening of the mechanisms for people who just want to come and have a hit or a kick, a throw or a run with a sense of community,’ says Dr Robertson. ‘With a focus on competition, we’ve taken these things for granted a bit.’

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a shift towards modified, play-oriented and shorter form sport. Packaging, positioning and pathways for the many – rather than those wedded to traditional structures – could be the difference between sports and clubs thriving or struggling in the new world.

What is clear is the traditional value proposition of organised sport has, at best, been creaking for a number of years. Following the COVID-19 shutdown, community sport has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-position and demonstrate its intrinsic values.

How will you help your favourite club or sport to respond?

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Dr Jonathan Robertson
Dr Jonathan Robertson

Lecturer in Sport Management, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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