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Informal Sport: the Future of Australian Sports Participation?

As many Australian states recognise Labour Day this month – the celebration of eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure and eight hours of sleep – it is timely to remember the important role of informal forms of education (both skills and social education) for all members of our community.

The recent sports rorts scandal, highlighting the alleged political use of public funds in supporting community sport, has demonstrated the need for greater scrutiny of how community based sports participation is funded and resourced. As we develop our new research project, Informal sport as a health and social resource for diverse young people, one of the key initial findings is that Australia needs to look at more than grant allocation processes to consider more broadly the value of the current sports funding system that continues to prioritise certain types of sporting participation at the expense of others. The sports funding system needs to be reshaped to better reflect the ways in which many Australians are now choosing to engage in sport and maintain active lives, throughout their lives.

Lost in the headlines are discussions about the bigger issue of what we think of as ‘sport’ and how we support sport through taxpayer money. Government funding schemes, such as the community sport infrastructure grant program at the centre of the sports rorts scandal, generally support structured, affiliated forms of sport. Club-based, member-driven sport has long been, and for now at least remains, the bedrock of participation in this country. But times and participation patterns are changing. The Intergenerational Review of Australian Sport 2017 (IGRS) report, produced for the Australian Sports Commission, suggests that participation in sport could fall by 15 per cent by 2036, with the biggest impact on young adults – particularly young women. AusPlay data indicates that the decline will hit community club and league systems where many sports, including cricket, golf, AFL and netball, are facing flat or declining participation rates. Disenchantment can be seen most dramatically in sports that have been slow to change formats or to address participant desires for less commitment (of time, cost and ability) and more flexibility.

The numbers tell us that a majority of the population move away from traditional, formal, structured sport participation in their teenage years. Some 40 per cent of the 6,600 young people (age mean = 13.9 years old) surveyed for the IGRS in 2016 had not engaged in organized sport within the previous 12 months. Formal sport is seemingly not providing the ‘fun with friends’ that young people say they are looking for. Club environments represent a potentially challenging space for girls and people from marginalized backgrounds and, for many people, club-based sport is simply not providing the flexibility to participate on their own terms at their own convenience amidst time-poor lives. So, what are people looking for in sport participation and what sort of participation is on the rise?

Running counter to the decline in formal club-based competition is the rise in informal or non-affiliated sport participation. In the United Kingdom, a million more adults were active in 2018/19 than were active in 2015. Yet participation in organized sports decreased in the same period by over one million people (Sport England Active Lives Adult Survey May 18/19 Report). Walking, jogging, running, swimming, cycling, stand-up paddling, parkrun, fitness activities, roller blading, park sports and the like have been taking the place of club-based participation.

Ironically, whilst this form of participation is increasing, it currently sits outside of formal sport funding streams so is rarely supported or developed. Despite the CSIRO (The Future of Australian Sport, 2013) acknowledging these shifting participation patterns as one of the megatrends affecting sport in Australia, funding and policies directed towards these changes is still being funnelled through structured clubs that have membership as a primary focus. Some larger sports are beginning to engage in the social sport space, such as tennis with their Open Court Sessions initiative. However, sport funding remains heavily skewed towards supporting structured, affiliated, regulated forms of sports participation.

If funding models continue to prioritise structured sport, we may be missing out on opportunities to foster alternative and emerging forms of community sport participation. The types of ‘official’ lock and key facilities being funded may actually be preventing people from participating in sport in new and creative ways and contradicts government policy that seeks to promote higher levels of physical activity.

The purpose of our ongoing project is to develop a stronger evidence base around what informal sport is occurring in Australia and the benefits of this form of participation for communities. You can contact the project team via Ruth Jeanes at ruth.jeanes@monash.edu

The project team members include Dr Justen O’ Connor, Monash University, Professor Ramon Spaaij, Victoria University, Professor Dawn Penney, Edith Cowan University with Industry Partners VicHealth, Cricket Victoria, Centre for Multicultural Youth and Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, WA.

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Informal Sport: the Future of Australian Sports Participation?

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