Community sport and COVID-19: An opportunity to make sport more inclusive?
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on sport. At the elite level we have witnessed the cancellation and postponement of global events, national leagues and competitions that have caused a crippling financial burden to the sector. The impact on the sports industry is already evident with professional players taking pay cuts and organisations that manage and administer sport declaring huge revenue losses and standing down staff.
The effects of COVID-19 are also being felt by community sport, with teams unable to train, play competitively and come together socially. As a consequence, many clubs are losing funding through membership fees, social events, food and bar sales and are eagerly awaiting news that they can re-commence at least some of their activities.
Even when restrictions are relaxed, community sport will face further challenges with the impact of COVID-19 expanding well beyond the period of lockdown. With the rise in unemployment caused by the pandemic, many individuals and families will not have the disposable income available to pay membership fees and other associated costs with sport participation. Membership numbers and in turn funding may therefore be reduced. There is also a possibility that people are gradually becoming comfortable in their COVID-19 adjusted leisure patterns and that they will not want to re-commit to club-based sport participation. One of the benefits of the pandemic for some parents has been the opportunity to claim back time and reduce stress levels created by modern family scheduling and taking children from one extra-curricular activity to another. It may be that parents are also less willing to engage with the intense commitment required to support their child’s sports participation when restrictions ease.
So what does the future of community sport look like post COVID-19?
The pandemic represents an opportunity to reimagine community sport and consider what opportunities are best suited to meet community needs and align with evolving lifestyles. Pre-pandemic community and club-based sport particularly was already facing an uncertain future. Some 40% of the 6,600 young people surveyed (age mean = 13.9 years old) by the Australian Sports Commission in 2016 had not engaged in organised sport within the last 12 months. Formal sport is not necessarily providing the ‘fun with friends’ that young people say they are looking for (ASC 2017). Club environments also represent a potentially challenging space for young females and people from marginalised backgrounds including minority ethnic communities and people with disabilities. Whilst 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.
In contrast to the pre-COVID-19 decline in formal club-based participation, informal and non-affiliated sport participation are on the rise. Among UK adults, a million more people were active in 2018/19 than in 2015. Yet participation in organised sports decreased in the same period by over one million people (Active Lives report, 2019). Self-organised, flexible, local opportunities, including park sports, park run and fitness activities have been filling the place of club-based participation. Groups of all ages are now connecting through social media and come together regularly to participate. They join multi-age, unaffiliated leagues, events and tournaments where individuals can participate as frequently or as little as they would like without having to worry about losing their place on the team or membership costs. For example, the Bayside Women’s Futsal League in Melbourne is a free weekly informal futsal competition for women of all ages and abilities, promoted only through Instagram. It attracts around 100 women and girls each week. There are no fixed age groups, no set grading of ability and no need to commit to the full season. Informal opportunities are appealing because they are affordable, flexible and local. They can also be more safe and welcoming and less competitive than traditional club settings.
The re-start for community sport post-COVID-19 offers the opportunity to rethink what might be the most effective way to support ongoing participation for all community members. There is the opportunity to consider how to support other models of participation that can complement structured club sport and in turn, encourage participation growth.
Informal sport potentially offers a flexible and responsive model, which is able to meet the needs of many residents transitioning out of lockdown. What is required from the sport sector to harness the potential of informal sport as a community resource? From a local government perspective, securing space for informal sport is crucial to ensure that groups have access to facilities for informal participation. This may require creative thinking of how to open up existing spaces, for example partnering with schools, working with established clubs to support shared access and considering ways to manage the use of space. For example through flexible booking systems similar to what sports such as tennis have been doing with their Open Court SessionsIt may require the development of local equipment libraries, similar to toy libraries, where individuals and informal groups can hire sports equipment to participate informally.
We are by no means suggesting that there is no place for traditional community sports clubs in a post-COVID-19 society. But the pandemic provides a unique opportunity to re-evaluate the community sport sector as a whole, review support and investment models, and innovate to open up sport participation and its associated benefits to a much broader section of the community.
Ruth Jeanes is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University, Australia, and is the Lead Chief Investigator on the research project ‘Informal sport as a health and social resource for diverse young people’.
Dawn Penney is a Professorial Research Fellow in the School of Education at Edith Cowan University and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University, Australia.
Justen O’Connor is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University, Australia.
Ramón Spaaij is a Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Australia, and Special Chair of Sociology of Sport at the University of Amsterdam.