Peak Australian sporting body predicts ‘disaster’ if community volunteer numbers continue declining

A national survey has revealed Australia’s 3 million-strong sporting volunteer workforce has declined by tens of thousands because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It represents a 2 per cent drop-off, according to the national participation survey AusPlay, and is an extra headache for previously locked-down communities starting to play sport again.

“It’s a big number … a really serious thing,” Sport Australia chief executive Rob Dalton said.

“We have to recognise the unpaid economy that runs community sport.”

Mr Dalton said losing volunteers threatened some city, suburban and regional sporting leagues.

“If we don’t have enough volunteers, the [playing] experience will be terrible and people will disappear from sport,” he said.

Eight and a half million adults (40 per cent of Australia’s population) and 3.4 million children (69 per cent) participate in organised sport.

The AusPlay report highlighted parents made up “more than two-thirds of volunteers”.

“It might be assumed that this is driven by children’s participation — children start playing sport and parents help out,” the report read.

“Some of the time this will be the case, but the opposite can also occur.

“If parents are actively involved in sport, their children are also more likely to play, giving them the opportunity to reap the benefits of sport throughout their lives.”

The most common non-playing community sporting roles are coaches, referees/umpires, and club officials.

Football has the most volunteers (467,000), followed by Australian rules (374,000) and netball (305,000).

AusPlay data revealed 774,000 volunteers took on multiple roles within the club system.

“There are 1.6 million men and 1.3 million women volunteering in sport in Australia,” the report said.

“This reflects the profile of organised sport participants generally — women are less likely than men to participate or volunteer.

“Volunteering is more common outside of the major cities where population density is lower, despite participation rates for organised sport being similar across regions.

“This perhaps reflects the strong role sport clubs play in rural and regional social and community life.”

Adopting a proactive approach

COVID-19 restrictions on sport and multiple lockdowns are seen as the reasons for the drop-off, but it is unclear what those volunteers are doing now.

“How are they filling their time? Will they come back?” Mr Dalton said.

Sport Australia is urging clubs from all sports to proactively search for volunteers.

“Don’t let people walk out the door without asking them if there is something they can do,” Mr Dalton said.

Little Athletics Australia (LAA) is one of the sports most reliant on volunteers to run Friday night and Saturday morning competitions throughout summer.

LAA general manager of operations Andrew Johnson said registration numbers for participants — and therefore volunteers — was “slow” but “getting back up there”.

“We had a drop-off in registrations last year,” he said.

“We hope this year gets easier. I think [participants and officials] are really keen to get back into it.”

Little Athletics competitors in a 200 metres race.
Little Athletics participation numbers dropped off last season.(Facebook: Little Athletics Australlia)

Mr Johnson said COVID-19 restrictions and procedures were an ongoing “grey area” that coaches and zone managers had to navigate.

“It’s a day-to-day, week-to-week thing,” he said.

Mr Johnson encouraged all families to get back into competing and learning new skills.

“It’s getting outside, seeing kids being active,” he said.

“It’s socialising again [after lockdowns].”

Sport Australia has a partnership with Volunteering Australia.

Mr Dalton said club officials looking for “tips, tricks, and tools” to improve their volunteering workforce should go to the websites of both organisations.

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