Subsidising Youth is The Way Forward

Last week Cricket Australia announced that the Big Bash League, their T20 competition will be expanded from 32 games to 40 in 2018. This means that each of the eight teams will now play five games away from home, and five at home. It also gives teams the chance to take games to country areas.

“We’re always looking at opportunities to grow the game and expand our fan base beyond traditional markets and demographics.” Said BBL chief Anthony Everard.

This would appear to be great news for the game of Cricket in Australia.

In December 2016 the Football Federation of Australia announced a new television deal commencing on July 1, 2017, a deal worth $346 million to the sport and which they explained was “on a like for like comparison is more than double the current arrangements.”

This deal would appear to be a huge win for the game of football in Australia.

In November 2015 the NRL negotiated a television Broadcast deal worth $1.8billion, the highest ever for the game. Once again everything looked positive for the game moving forward.

To those looking on from afar it would appear that all three of these sports in Australia have never been in a better position, and the future would appear to be extremely rosy. Yet things are not always as it seems.

It has been a known fact for a while that in the sport of Football the game has been stinging its junior participants by imposing exorbitant registration fees. Rather than subsidising the fees and increasing participation numbers, the sport is actually losing some young players simply because parents cannot afford or justify the cost for their children to play.

Yet it has come to light in recent weeks that football is not alone in terms of not supporting their sport at grassroots level.

As much as the Big Bash League is a huge marketing success and has the turnstiles clicking for a month, it has not had the initial desired result and turned many of those “new” fans into cricket converts. The new breed of T20 fan are not becoming ODI or Test match fans. They are not following the longer forms of the game.

Equally distressing is that the money generated by the Big Bash League is not filtering down to subsidise junior cricket. One official linked with a state franchise, and who wished to remain anonymous, stated that next to nothing was being invested in the next generation, and was gravely concerned as to the impact this will have on the game in the next ten years.

The same story is also happening in Rugby League, with another person very close to the game saying that the money generated by the television deal is simply not filtering down to the junior ranks. It is staying with the NRL clubs.

Some will say that this is understandable. The clubs after all are the ones who generate the money by being the teams that the public go and watch. Yet are not many of the clubs now operating beyond their means? Surely these franchises, clubs and State organisations should be running as a business and cutting their coat according to their cloth?

Are not these teams paying salaries to their players that they cannot afford without the financial support of the game’s governing bodies?

Surely the administrators should be safeguarding the future of the sport by ensuring that monies are allocated to subsidise junior participation?

With the exception of cricket, Rugby League and Football are games that are relatively cheap to play. They are far from elitist and have always been games that belong to the average man on the street.

Yet surely all three could learn a thing or two from the PGA in the USA. Golf is without doubt regarded by many as a luxury sport by parents and one that few can afford their children to play.

Yet that is changing in the USA thanks to a program called “Youth on Course.” The idea is ridiculously simple. Children will never pay more than USD$5 for a round of golf. The financial barrier, or one of them has been removed; they still have to hire or buy clubs.

The way the system is going to work is “Youth on Course” members will be aged between 7-18. They receive a membership pass in the mail, which means the PGA can monitor players by location and when they play. Once they receive their pass they can play at identified courses for $5 or less. They can play anywhere across the USA and are not restricted to their state. The program is active across 330 golf courses in 12 states.

The program actually commenced back in 1989 when the Northern California Golf Association when it was looking to find turf-grass research and local junior programs. in 2005 it was re-jigged to increase the number of junior golfers, and by 2009 had expanded to include a Caddie academy, high school internships and university scholarships in Northern California.

The program is now national and is reaping rewards and endorsements. Two time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is one who has encouraged young children to get involved and was quoted as saying, “it’s a great opportunity for kids to enjoy the game, regardless of their background or what means they have.”

This is surely the essence of sport when you are a child. It is about enjoyment and participation. We see Government departments regularly hand over large sums of money to sporting organisations, but surely they should be demanding that the money be spent on similar programs that enable more children to play, rather than simply covering the cost of more administration staff?

How does the system work in the USA? “Youth on Course” subsidises the balance of a round of golf through fundraising efforts and from those who can afford to play donating back into the sport. The rounds of golf are tracked on an online system. When the player turns up at a course their card is scanned the number recorded and at the end of the month the course is reimbursed the difference in the green fee for every young player who has played in that month.

Not only is “Youth on Course” making a sport accessible to many who previously would not have played the game, it has been said that it has had a huge social impact. It has also helped bring through a new breed of top player in the USA with more and more under 30 players appearing on the leader board at major tournaments.

The clubs and franchises in Rugby League, football and Cricket are never going to relinquish their grip on the funding they receive from their sport’s governing bodies, but it is clear that something needs to be done, and quickly if Australian sport is not to suffer in ten years time as a result of a lack of investment.

Why can’t a similar system be set up in other sports? Why can’t Governments demand that finances given to sport be invested solely into the youth sector?

Grassroots sport is crying out for investment. The first sport to sit down and analyse the issue and find a way to underwrite their youth will be the one that will flourish in the long term, as Golf has shown. This will not be a program that will reap rewards overnight but has to be a program with a long term vision and one that the sport realises will only reap the rewards into the future.

It is interesting to note how youth were affected by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 Regulation 909 which gave education authorities the right to sell school land that they considered surplus to their requirements. In the next ten years it was estimated that 5,000 school playing fields were sold. Many of these converted into housing developments, supermarkets or car parks.

Later in her time as Prime Minister there was a prolonged industrial dispute between the government and the teaching unions, which centred on pay and conditions. However this dispute led to thousands of teachers refusing to continue providing unpaid after-school sports lessons, as a result the number of hours of school sports fell still further. Many local clubs were forced to set up junior programs and purchase equipment to give those keen to play the opportunity.

By the late 1980’s the UK Government recognised “the need to reduce social inequities in opportunities to play sport and to continue supporting improvements in performance.” By 1995 it was being said that the newly created National Lottery “had transformed forever the prospects of British Sport.” Suddenly the UK had a mechanism to generate funds to support grassroots sport.

It is not often that Politicians get a nod of approval, but in launching the initiative in the UK the then Prime Minister John Major was quoted as saying, “In this initiative I put perhaps highest priority on plans to help all our schools improve their sport. Sport is open to all ages – but it is most open to those who learn to love it when they are young. Competitive sport teaches valuable lessons which last for life. Every game delivers both a winner and a loser. Sports men must learn to be both. Sport only thrives if both parties play by the rules, and accept the results with good grace. It is one of the best means of learning how to live alongside others and make a contribution as a part of a team. It improves health and it opens the door to new friendships.”

He makes some very valid points. Sport at junior level is not a revenue stream. It is far more important than that. Equally is is not solely about participation, and giving children a trophy for turning up. There are winners and losers, and to the winner go the spoils, as in most cases in life.

Britain’s sport suffered due to Margaret Thatcher’s regulation 909, many will argue that a generation was lost, and the price was a heavy one to pay. Australia needs to be careful that it does not pay a similar price by focussing solely on the elite side of sport and failing to support financially children’s sport. This cannot be left solely to the amateur and semi professional clubs. Money must come from the top down to support these programs. It should never be the other way around where the parents of children are being asked to pay over the odds in order to support adult teams.

Remember those at the top at the moment as it could be their decisions that determine the fate of their sports in 10-15 years time.

Subsidising Youth is The Way Forward

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