It’s been another year of massive growth for women in sport. More record-breaking crowds, more viewership, more coverage and more fan engagement. While the women have been picking up pace, we’ve seen things hit a speed bump for men in sport. There’s been down-scaling in venues, damning governance reviews and collapsing participation rates. The two products are at very different points in their life cycle so it’s no wonder that they are moving at a different pace. But the fortune of men suggests we are finding the natural limit of growth in sport.
It was a folly to believe that things would simply continue to grow forever. There were always going to be a finite number of fans, a finite pool of talent and a finite amount of resources to underwrite it all. In our national game, we have seen our governing body do all they can to extract every last ounce of value. Giving us more and more rugby to consume, inventing new competitions and enacting law variations to retain interest.
We scaled up to meet the ambition of our administrators and that’s where the bloat set in. Duplicating governance structures and establishing multiple levels of professionalism for men in the game that required exponential growth to sustain. While leaving the coalface of the sport to a team of volunteers, who would eventually have the fruits of their labour sold back to them at a premium.
Globally, we are seeing similar signs of sports struggle for sustainability. The next Commonwealth Games in 2026 is still yet to find a host. The sheer wall of costs involved proved too high for Melbourne, the Gold Coast and the United Kingdom to scale. The alternative has seen sporting bodies selling off their values in order to keep the lights on at their major events. For all their talk of the business of sport, it is often charity that funds men’s exploits.
It’s no wonder then that as women are finally arriving to the party, they are not being met rapturously by all. They are facing an economic reality their fathers and brothers never dreamed of. These women must be athletes and accountants, arriving at their sport already in the red.
So as the foundational belief of infinite growth crumbles, how does sport transition into a post-growth reality? First is to apply this understanding across all elements of the code at hand. We can no longer write cheques for one part of the sport that is paid for by sacrifice in others. We cannot overlook new opportunities by being shackled to tradition. By understanding our limits we can reconnect more fully with our values. Redefining our versions of success in the process.
If we have alignment in our vision then we can re-prioritise our structures in line with their delivery. We can remove pomp to put more shoulders to the pump. Collaborating off field to be more competitive on it.
For the athlete, this will mean taking a more holistic view of sport, their place in it as well as its place in their lives. If we cannot afford to pay our top grade as professionals, we cannot expect them to operate as such. This is a lesson well understood as we hold women’s progress back in line with our budgets. But it is one that still needs to be taught domestically as we see the overvaluing of men’s wages.
A circuit breaker is required in the way we currently operate if we want sport to be sustainable. Even with little room left to grow, there is still much more left to achieve. A future that could see us all take pride and our place in the game.