Sports stars brace for change
Standing still no option
Satisfying an increasingly fickle audience is emerging as the most pressing problem facing WA sport, the chief executives of the State’s leading codes have warned.
Meeting the demands of social-media obsessed fans was vying with the fight for resources as sports’ biggest headache, according to 16 leading sports executives who attended this week’s Australian Institute of Management WA/WestBusiness CEO Voice event.
The chief executives, who spend much of their time competing with each other for funding, found common ground in the problem of how to change their codes to retain players, members and fans.
Swimming WA chief executive Darren Beazley summed up the mood of the room when he said: “I wonder if we are not all guilty of saying, well this is the way I grew up in sport”.
“I think there is a real danger for sport at the moment that we have this disconnect between what is happening in society and what we are doing, ” he said.
“People have got more choice than ever and I wonder if we in sport are reacting to that. What I have seen in the US is the disconnect between the entertainment space and the reality of what the human endeavour is all about.”
Football West boss Peter Hugg said soccer was feeling the heat.
“If you look at what people consider to be tradition — 11-a-side, Saturday afternoon on a grass pitch. Now we have beach football, summer sixs, indoor football, super sevens, outdoor eights, football fives, FIFA 2015, ” he said.
The problem of retaining the fan base was even more worrying than retaining athletes, other executives warned.
Perth Wildcats chief Nick Marvin identified online as the greatest threat to his code.
“We are fearful people will stop coming to games because it is all online, ” he said. “How do you get the product to evolve to get people out of their house, come to the venue and go home?”
WA Football Commission head Gary Walton suggested the length of games could be putting people off.
“Are people willing today to spend five hours to get to, get from and watch a sporting event? They may have 20 years ago but not necessarily today, ” he said.
“Are we willing to be brave enough to restructure our games to meet societal demands? We are seeing shorter versions of different games to deal with that.”
Long-serving West Coast Eagles boss Trevor Nisbett said there was evidence that fans were starting to opt for the lounge room experience. Some West Coast fans preferred being on the waiting list because it meant they would watch five or six games live “and the other games on TV.”
The problem of shortening attention spans was acute for Rowing WA chief Luke Callier, who said interest in his sport spiked around the Olympics but fell away quickly. “The difficulty is attracting kids to a sport where it is six or eight years before you are going to be on a podium.”
NEED FOR A UNITED VOICE
The CEO Voice guests agreed they should be a stronger lobby group.
“If we added up everyone’s membership base it would be pretty significant, ” basketball great and RV Sport chief executive Andrew Vlahov said.
Mr Hugg said sporting bodies needed to “more militant” and warned too much was expected.
“We are trying to be all things to all people, ” he said. “We, as an organisation, are involved in something like eight health programs. When was it sport’s job to save the world?”
Rugby WA boss Mark Sinderberry noted that “we don’t have a united voice that is heard with a single message”.
Mr Nisbett said the benefits of sport were undersold.
“We haven’t educated the community that if you get kids playing sports you aren’t going to need the hospital, ” he said. “They are in team environments and there is an opportunity for them to grow in other areas. It helps us with health, with education, with social well-being.”
HAIL THE VOLUNTEER
Mr Sinderberry said most codes were “under-resourced on the administration side” and questioned existing structures.
“Do our corporate structures detract or assist from our aspirations as organisations? I think we need a conversation about private ownership or community ownership — structures that might assist the sport, ” he said.
Business leader and former Basketball Australia chairwoman Diane Smith-Gander identified the mish-mash of funding as a problem.
“There is funding available but you only get the funding for a particular program, ” he said.
“You don’t get it for the administration and overhead that surrounds that. Taking on board a half a dozen programs becomes a real issue because it stretches your administration.”
The problem was felt particularly at WA Rugby League.
“The game here grew 19.3 per cent last year, ” chief executive John Sackson said. “We grew that another 7 per cent this year. TV ratings are going up significantly. I have a team of DOs that are punching way above their weight. We are reaching breaking point now. We need more development officers, we need more resources. If they (the NRL) want growth we can give them growth but we need fuel in the tank.”
The lack of staff meant most codes relied heavily on volunteers, who were hard to recruit.
“It’s getting very hard to get volunteers these days because you have got to have a police clearance, you have got to do this, you have got to do that, ” middle- distance Olympian and shadow sport and recreation minister Peter Watson said.
FIGHT FOR FACILITIES
Department of Sport and Recreation director general Ron Alexander is bracing for more demand for sports facilities.
“You may be living next to a school where your kids go but after 3.30pm you get locked out for . . . safety reasons, ” he said.
“It is happening in government schools and private schools. It usually happens because someone commissions a risk-management report and there are a couple of black-letter lawyers on the school board.
“The perfect storm comes when we have higher densities, so at a time when sportspeople are looking for more space . . . schools are putting fences around themselves.”
Surfing WA chief Mark Lane said red tape was a problem.
“We have moved so far away from common sense with the amount of forms and applications we have to fill out for a single program, ” he said. “Surfers have plenty of playing fields out there. There are just big fish with sharp teeth that like to swim in them. With every single event, the issue of compliance is getting greater and greater.”
Ms Smith-Gander said the Building the Education Revolution program was misguided.
“Nobody should have got anything at a school unless it was for multiple use, ” she said.
Netball WA boss Simon Taylor said some netball clubs were turning children away.
“Wanneroo has got 57 netball courts, ” he said. “How many more can you put in?”
Waterpolo WA chief Dale Ballantyne said his sport was at a particular disadvantage because it required “facilities that are 25m in length”. “Not many LGAs like to dig holes, they prefer to fill them in, ” he said.
Mr Walton predicted a time when “the oval, whatever shape it may be, starts to have as many lines as a basketball court that turns into a netball court, which turns into a volleyball court.”
© The West Australian
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