Since the 1960s, Little Athletics has played a crucial role in our communities by supporting children’s physical development alongside Senior Athletics as a core grassroots community with more than 100 years of history providing opportunities to world-class champions and the clubby trying to better their performances alike. The question is, can this dual system continue to succeed in today’s environment?
Late in 2020, the President of LAA remarked during a public forum, “There has never been greater competition between sports and Australians’ have never been so time-poor. There are declining registrations, competition from professional sport, increasing administration costs, decreasing volunteerism, and reduction in physical activity levels; all of these threaten the iconic status of Little Athletics.
We recognised the need to evolve the way we deliver our product, create better pathways, and work as hard as possible to keep people engaged in the sport, especially teenagers, the need to eliminate confusion for parents on registration days and to reduce the financial and physical burden on members due to crowded competition calendars, and so on.
The need to bridge the disconnect; the disconnect that exists between junior and senior athletics”.
Both national bodies face all of the challenges of attracting and retaining participants in today’s market but with the added barrier of a pathway and volunteer system, which is disconnected at the crucial age where young adults are making decisions about their physical fitness and health choices. Acknowledging the Little Athletics brand’s iconic value and the significant contributions of athletes and volunteers across the sport, there remains the immediate issue of declining participation in athletics.
A 2013 study conducted by Gemba on behalf of LAA highlighted that membership was declining. The organisation held one of Australia’s highest churn rates for participation at around 85% for children aged 9-10yo. This highlights only part of the challenge facing the sport.
Attempts to bring the two organisations closer over the years have been met with varying degrees of success. Then, in 2019, with all of the challenges having immediate impacts on all levels of the sport, the boards of LAA and AA came together and determined to address the national bodies’ governance. This was the beginning of OneAthletics.
Golf, Sailing, Cycling, and even Cricket in Australia were tackling the daunting process of creating real and essential changes to how their sports are governed and their delivery systems’ sustainability. Athletics was well placed to leverage much of the learnings and went about bringing together individuals involved, partnering with governments and engaging with the leadership of these sports to garner the most advantage possible from others in the lead.
Significant change requires momentum, and momentum takes time. Change is like a flywheel; often, it will continue to spin and gain energy once it’s up to speed. 2020 was a challenging year, bringing together a project team, establishing work plans, analysing stakeholders’ needs, and articulating the need and benefit of OneAthletics. We all know the impact of COVID on livelihoods, athletics programs, events and the community. Despite what the sport endured over the past 12 months, or perhaps because of it, the athletics community is now positioned to bring all the elements together.
Most importantly, the State and Territory organisations’ engagement, who are the front line for the sport, is a primary focus for OneAthletics. Each is choosing their own pathways to create better delivery systems in their communities, but only when we all succeed will the full benefits be realised.
Coming into 2021 off the back of some hard work, the OneAthletics project is now establishing content-led advisory groups to inform the final parts of the model, an articulated governance transition process, due diligence of the finances of LAA and AA, identification of strategies to address teen participation, coach development, official’s recruitment and a brand to represent a much broader community.
So, what does this mean for athletics? What are the benefits? Many of the sport’s barriers at the national level are caused by the existence of two separate entities setting policy and strategy. Bringing these together rectifies this, but there are other more challenging aspects for a new body to tackle. A commercial model leveraging the reach possible in a joined community will, in time, provide some investment not possible in the current model. A staffing structure built to address the issues of participation directly and have the capacity to ensure our international level athletes can perform at their best. Work to establish a best-in-class digital ecosystem that supports participation and drives better online experiences for all. And reducing competition between AA and LAA competitions that place unnecessary burdens on athletes, their parents, and the volunteer officials and administrators.
The greatest challenge will be how this new national body provides support and protection to the state and territory organisation in a sport where some have already come together, while others are exploring how the business and governance models for athletics might be adapted to their unique local circumstances.
And what about at the club and centre level? in the immediate future there will be no real change, the sport can continue to operate and do what it does best. In time, these communities will have access to creating more opportunities for Australians to participate in Athletics in a way that fits their needs.
Over the first half of 2021, the final pieces of OneAthletics will come together. Led by the Boards through cross-pollination of crucial committees and working groups, the sport’s administration at a national level will be moving closer to the vision of one sport under former ASC CEO Kate Palmer’s guidance. As a further sign of their commitment to the sport’s unification, the LAA and AA Boards meet jointly from March.
As we work towards a vote in October, having demonstrated working relationships and articulated the plan to succeed, the question is; will this be a step in the right direction? In other words, it doesn’t need to be perfect by day one, but it needs to put the governance, strategy and structure in place to set the sport in the right direction.
Article by Gavin Macdonald
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