The question that has bubbled to the surface in recent months is whether sport's governing bodies have their priorities upside down when it comes to participation versus club development. Is the focus on participation growth overshadowing the need for stronger, more sustainable grassroots clubs?
We must preface this post by saying that governing bodies are under as much, if not more pressure than small grassroots clubs.
In the past few years, CLUBMAP has been privileged to work with more than 100 fantastic governing bodies, all doing great things for their sports, but also having varying levels of structural, financial, administrative and resource pressures.
What is a governing body?
Governing bodies are usually national or state-level organisations; however, some sports also have regions or hubs, as well as leagues or associations. For clarity, we classify all these levels above grassroots clubs, as a ‘governing body’, as they all have major roles to play in overseeing and managing sport, both through club development and shaping the sport's future.
The current landscape
Our recent work with governing bodies has alerted us to a worrying trend in sport. Many governing bodies are under-resourced, often at all levels of their sport, so no secrets there. What many may not be aware of is that some sports are entirely volunteer run, from the national body down.
Stretched resources means little time to focus on generating their own revenue, while the little funding they do receive is tied directly to participation numbers. This results in the bulk of the governing body’s time focused almost entirely on operations and participation growth, rather than their own organisational health, strategic goals and sustainability; or that of their leagues, associations and ultimately, clubs - who are the ones tasked with driving the participation growth.
This creates a vicious cycle of short-term participation growth ‘hits’, followed by inevitable drop-off due to the clubs not being set up to run their new programs sustainably.
This leads us back to the initial question: Is the focus on participation growth overshadowing the need for stronger, more sustainable grassroots clubs?
It has been the ‘elephant in the room’ for some time. Is it time to discuss and provide some solutions to address the question? We think so.
A shift in funding
This growing emphasis on participation is demonstrated through new criteria relevant to the allocation of funding and resources at all levels.
Many funding bodies and grant providers have adjusted their guidelines to focus purely on participation growth activities, often with a focus on under-represented groups. Governing bodies have followed suit, increasing the amount of funding and initiatives aimed at grassroots recruitment. They invest in advertising campaigns, clinics, new shorter formats of their sport, and youth development programs to engage a wider audience. While these great initiatives and funding opportunities have undoubtedly led to an increase in the number of participants in the short term, many grassroots sporting clubs charged with implementing these programs are struggling to keep their doors open. And the cycle begins.
We know that community clubs around Australia are struggling.This is due to a dying volunteering culture, ageing infrastructure, old-fashioned and time-consuming fundraisers, and a lack of specifically educated coaches and administrators. Club committees are already stretched thin. While balancing club, family, work and everything else, they also have the challenge of recruiting new members and implementing new programs, all while maintaining a high-quality experience for existing members, volunteers and participants, who are often overlooked.
The way forward
Every year, we are seeing more and more clubs going into recession for a season, amalgamating with neighbouring clubs, or closing their doors altogether. There is a range of factors involved, including some external ones that can’t be helped, but it often boils down to three key components: education, direction and support.
With access to education to help run more efficiently, support to provide great facilities and programs, and a clear direction outlined in a roadmap for the future, we believe every club can thrive.
Currently, we see the balance of focus favouring participation growth at around 90%,with only 10% left for club or organisational development. This is led from the top. If we could shift this balance more towards a 50/50 split, we’d see a much more sustainable sporting landscape.
Sustainable participation growth
Increased participation is always the ultimate goal. Seeing more people participating in sport and enjoying the communities they have built is why we do what we do.
Unfortunately, the cart is coming before the horse. At the grassroots level, the new programs and initiatives can hurt more than help, leaving the significant resources invested ultimately underachieving.
After working one-on-one with clubs, nationwide, for more than 9 years, we have no doubt in the correlation between well-run, structured, viable organisations and sustainable participation growth.
We’re believers in ‘build it and they will come’. If we can shift the balance, provide club development support at scale, build more well-run, properly structured, viable community clubs, the natural bi product will be participation growth. People want to be part of a great community club, not one that is barely keeping its head above water.
Club development encompasses a wide range of areas and it’s often the off-field elementsthat don’t receive the necessary attention or education. Both development and participation are critical for the health of any sport; however, it’s essential to strike a balance that ensures the long-term sustainability of clubs with the overall growth of the sport.