By Manoli Luxford

Community sport has gotten back to the sporting fields around New South Wales, but sporting clubs have faced a tough road back due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While competition recommenced on July 1, local sporting clubs had already been heavily impacted.

Over a five week survey conducted by the Australian Sports Foundation, out of 4127 sporting organisations, 93 per cent of clubs surveyed had lost money since the onset of COVID-19, costing community clubs an estimated $1.6 billion.

Dunbar Rovers Football Club in Randwick City is one of the only football club’s in New South Wales to offer fee free football to their players and was worried about the club’s future for the year.

Peter Hennessy, Director of Dunbar Rovers FC said, “The challenge for us was that we’ve got a model that relies on fundraising and sponsorship for our survival, and we knew that we were going to have a tough situation. We run a fundraising, corporate lunch which raises $70,000 and we knew with COVID restrictions that we were going to be unable to do that this year.”

“We were concerned about sponsors, because obviously these companies were having a tough time as well, about whether we would be able to actually secure the funds they had promised us, so it was a real challenging time for us.”

The Australian Sports Foundation also recorded that around 80 per cent of clubs had forecasted ongoing reductions in primary revenue streams such as local sponsorships and community fundraising.

These concerns were brought to Randwick City Council’s attention by many sporting clubs in the community worried about the loss of revenue in the months that community sport was unable to be played.

Mayor Danny Said said, “There was a lot of sporting angst because sport, especially in this area are volunteer community groups, and there’s not a lot of funds to rely on.”

“A lot of them rely on sponsorship, and at the same time, as sporting clubs couldn’t play their sport, there were businesses who weren’t able to open because of COVID, so the businesses didn’t have money, there was no sponsorship, and a lot of the parents couldn’t afford the fees.”

“I was pretty cut actually, and I think it played a lot on me mentally more than anything just for the fact that I’d only just moved up, and just the social aspect I was going to miss more than anything because moving up here, I didn’t really have many friends.”

Tom Eggleton

As well as the economic impacts left on community sport during the time of major restrictions, the cancellation of sport also affected the physical and mental wellbeing of players.

The Australian Sports Foundation reported that during COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, one quarter of sport-playing participants stated their overall health was worse than in 2019, with 29 per cent reporting worse physical health, and 31 percent reporting worse mental health.

Tom Eggleton, who plays AFL for the UNSW Eastern Suburbs Bulldogs, had recently moved at the start of the year from Adelaide to Sydney hoping to get straight into playing AFL in a new community and make new friends.

But, the months of uncertainty around community sport left his mental health feeling impacted.

From May 22, sports were given permission to recommence training in small groups of no more than 20 people, ensuring social distancing measures between players.

This also meant that all training activites needed to be done without any contact.

Rachael Aston, Dunbar Rovers FC Operations Manager said, “It was trick through the training period keepin the kids motivated and ready to go.”

With many sporting clubs worried about their financial struggles, Randwick City Council announced a $2.3 million community support package, which included the waiving and refunding of sporting field hire for local sporting groups.

Mr Said said, “As a council, we believe in a sense of community. We went out of our way to make sure that everyone in our community who did want to play sport was able to, and we decided as a council to waive the fees for the sporting grounds so that way the clubs were able to get out there as soon as possible and make a go for it.”

“That single act has been the most incredible thing I think that any council has done for sport for many years. I’ve been involved with Dunbar Rovers for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Peter Hennessy

Mr Said said that many clubs were appreciative of the council’s support for community sport as clubs did not have money coming in and less sponsorship, and the waiving of ground fees helped clubs be able to run.

Mr Hennessy said, “Randwick City Council have been unbelievable. We were in a financial hole where we were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to afford to play home games and that we would have to play all games away and travel all over Sydney.”

“Randwick Council offering community clubs free use of their facilities for the year has meant that we not only have been able to play our home games, but we’ve had trainign at no cost, and that has been absolutely phenomenal.”

Mr Said said, “Everyone had been locked up and this was a great way of getting everyone out of the house and one the sporting field, so that at least they could go back to some socialising and it is fantastic for their mental health.”

New South Wales allowed for community sport competition to recommence July 1, with a gathering not exceeding 500 participants and COVID-19 safety plans needed to be in place by sporting clubs for the fields.

Ms Aston said the news uplifted everyone’s spirits especially both the kids and parents involved with the club.

“The parents were really, really pleased for the children to be able to participate again. It was a really big thing about their mental health as well as their physical wellbeing.”, Ms Aston said.

“They wanted to make sure that they could continue on to grow and develop through such a difficult time. With schooling being out and training being on, it was a real positive for everybody.”

“It was a really big thing about their mental health as well as their physical wellbeing. They wanted to make sure that they could continue on to grow and develop through such a difficult time.”
Rachael Aston

With restrictions on sports competitions lifted, the football competitions were able to be restructured to allow for a full season of games until the end of October.

Mayor Said said, “Football were able to get in a 14-week series of competition, which is by constitution the minimum amount, so they just made it and they are very happy.”

Mr Hennessy was pleased was weary at first of the restructuring of the competition, but the end result was pleasing.

“What has happened is the competition has been slightly restructured so that for five weeks we have gone into local hubs which means we’re not travelling all over Sydney, but it’s given us the opportunity to play against some very good clubs at a higher level in the area. We initially thought it may be problematic, but it’s actually worked out very well.”, said Mr Hennessy.

Ms Aston said, “It’s very exciting because all the parents were like, yes! We can play some more football.”

Mr Eggleton said being back playing AFL had re-connected him back with people and was thankful to be with his team mates again.

“I think personally, it’s massively improved my mental status. I’m absolutely loving it and just the sense of being able to catch up again is massive.”

While community sport returning has been a positive step getting back to normality for players, there are still effects that sport clubs face with COVID-19 restrictions.

Hennessy and Aston said that protocols of both Randwick City Council and Football NSW from the NSW Government had to be followed to ensure safety of participants and spectators.

But, it has still restricted revenue that the club could make.

Ms Aston said, “We have a fundraising barbecue every home game which we couldn’t do. So there, we lost any money, when we use that money to pay for referees to cover those costs.”

Randwick City Council has assisted sporting clubs throughout this period to create COVID safe plans and ensure the facilities at sporting grounds are able to be used.

“We told the sporting clubs what the government expected from them for COVID reasons, and they had to come back to us with COVID rules, which at the start some places couldn’t open up their canteens but that later got sorted.”, said Mr Said.

“We worked in collaboration the full time with every association to try make sure that they could get back.”

Ms Aston said, “Currently we still can’t have a barbecue, change rooms are of minimal use, you can only go in and get changed in small numbers because they have to keep a metre and a half apart. We have a QR sign in code for everybody who comes to the park to sign in, plus for those who don’t have a phone, there is a manual sheet. So, following Football NSW rules, we’ve been managing quite well.”

With the winter sport season finishing and moving on to the summer sporting season, further easing of restrictions by the NSW Government from September 26 were implemented for community sport.

This allowed for more spectators to watch community sporting games and interregional sporting competitions were allowed to recommence.

Randwick City Council has committed to continuing support for sporting clubs throughout the summer season by continuing to waive the fees of sporting fields for clubs.

“We’ve extended those (waiving of fees), they’ve gone all the way through winter for the winter sports and also at the same time, we’re doing it for the first part of summer with the cricket clubs. We’ll help them in every way we can to make sure that the facilities are washed down and ready to go.”, said Mr Said.

Mr Said reassures the council will continue to plan according to what is happening at the current time.

“We’re happy that sport was able to operate and we’re thankful to all the volunteers for doing their bit to make sure that everyone was kept safe, and we got through this, and we’ll keep on continuing to get through it now in summer.”

  Manoli Luxford @manoli_luxford