By Peter Dale of Radio New Zealand

COMMENT:

Since March the bottom has fallen out of sports participation.

The bottom has also fallen out of our ability to pay for the costs of sport.

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Post Covid it will depend on what kind of sport our communities want and what store will be put in the value sport provides to our communities.

I worry about the children. Will they want to play sport again?

Coming out of Covid will be no easy matter, especially for children's sport.

Seasons have all but come and gone, young bodies' physical robustness on the back burner for 8-10 weeks.

Few kids will have had the chance to get dirty let alone take a few knocks-all part of sport. That, along with no team play and little teamwork, having been wrapped in cotton wool cocoons, will make the transition to team sport a new experience for many youngsters.

Not only teams sport, but all sport.

To leap at centre for an intercept needs a netball court, someone to play with, and a coach.

In the period of isolation children have been glued to the screen, both for school, and leisure, and e-sport has seized its already strong advantage in the lives of our kids.

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Some clever thinking will be needed to get people out on the fields in the cold and the wind after 12 weeks of shelter from reality.

Covid has also opened up a few financial sores and it is time to let them into the sunlight.

Parks, reserves, open spaces and their tracks have been free to use since forever - quite properly paid for by taxes and rates.

But it's different for sport.

These days players of organised sports are charged for the use of playing fields, court hire, lane hire, practice sessions.

There are councils in my region that charge for children to use playing fields - a practice that speaks volumes for the value placed on sport by authorities. One provincial sport familiar to me pays councils $440,000 a year for the use of playing fields and surfaces.

In part this is a cynical move by Councils to force clubs to seek funds from gaming grants to pay what is essentially a subsidy of the ratepayers.

In force for more than a decade this has had the effect of devaluing sport to merely one more activity that incurs cost on land zoned for the use of amateur sport. Councils now merely allocate contracts for ground maintenance to people who have little interest in sport.

Maromaku School sports day, Whangaruru School's Te Pona Davis-Martin 13 does his best to reach the ball. Photo Michael Cunningham.
Maromaku School sports day, Whangaruru School's Te Pona Davis-Martin 13 does his best to reach the ball. Photo Michael Cunningham.

The grass is mowed. In the process councils have quietly ignored any obligations they had formerly concerning healthy cohesive communities which value community effort.

With fundraising capability all but gone for clubs, it will be interesting to see how councils decide to continue to on-charge their obligations to sport.

It is heartening to see the Government support for sports hubs where facilities and services can be shared and at low cost. The days of a clubhouse in each corner of a sports ground are surely gone and a mix of summer and winter sports sharing services works really well for all involved.

You only have to look at the College Rifles complex or the Papatoetoe Sports Hub or the new Ngapunawai Hub in Christchurch to see what opportunities there are for the future.

The Government move shows an understanding that we simply do not have enough volunteers/officials to go around - at least until they are truly valued by our community and our leaders.

It is the first Government signal I have seen to overhaul what is really a 1950s structure of sport and reshape it for the 2030s.

Up in the stratosphere that is professional sport I wonder if the lack of spectacle has been missed sufficiently by enough eyeballs to make it financially worthwhile again.

The prospect of Super Rugby games of home and away may leave those eyeballs a little unfocused, and NRL games played in Australia will likely lose their pizazz. ANZ Premiership Netball is so far removed from the community game that those players, whose skills are dazzling, might no longer provide sufficient impetus for every girl to carry on.

Corporates wishing to message via sport may not hang around if the content no longer attracts.

Along the way we must not set the bar for representative sport so high that those who do not make it are disheartened and drop out altogether. In any case national sports bodies should come back down to earth and think about just how the sport they treasure can be sustained-without a firm base it will be hard to rebuild a structure that will last. The importance of the word amateur comes to mind.

Woodford centre Belle Kinnear with ball. Huntley School Sports Quad hosting Iona, Woodford and St George's. Photo / Bevan Conley.
Woodford centre Belle Kinnear with ball. Huntley School Sports Quad hosting Iona, Woodford and St George's. Photo / Bevan Conley.

At the national and provincial level of sport, Covid has given us the biggest fright in our history. It will pay to consider whether in our determination to build a strong infrastructure we have instead built an unwieldy national and regional superstructure comprising an unsustainable cast of thousands doing what once was the sole domain of volunteers. We should all have a good look at just how necessary it all is.

My biggest worry as we come up for healthy Covid-free air is we will not be nimble enough to aim for the playing of sport by all children as the new normal, one which could see lifelong sports participation and a very real return on well-being.

I value sport, and volunteering for it, as the glue that holds communities together. It seems the government understands this and will put some highly valued funds towards solutions. Now we need our councils and our sports superstructure to rethink their priorities.

Peter Dale is the former CEO of the Hillary Commission (now Sport New Zealand). He is a Trustee and former Chair of New Zealand community Trust, Vice Commodore of Waikanae Boating Club, and current Chair of Wellington Rugby League.
This story was originally published on RadioNZ and was re-published here with permission.