Clubs lose their place when money comes from above.

For the past 10 years or so I have been on the committee of a tennis club. It has been an insight to the slow, inexorable poisoning of the grassroots of civil society - independent social organisations - by public money.

Just about everybody in New Zealand, I imagine, would love to see a local tennis player do for us what Andy Murray did for Britain this week. It ought to happen, we have the climate, the courts, the lifestyle.

A small population is no excuse, nor is distance from the major circuits. If those were fatal, players from Australia, Argentina, Chile, would never win a grand slam event. So what's wrong with us?

Sparc asked this question some years ago when tennis' national administrators lined up for government sport and recreation grants. Sparc decided tennis didn't qualify for help on high performance criteria but could be funded for the numbers playing the game, provided certain conditions were met.


Before long, we heard that the game's "governance" would have to be "restructured". Stop me if this sounds familiar.

Clubs were summoned to a meeting of their district association to be presented with a draft of its new constitution. A governing board would be appointed for managerial and financial skills, not necessarily in tennis.

Board members would face re-election by clubs but not all together. Their terms would be staggered for stability and continuity. They would make rarefied "policy", in line with that of the similarly reconstituted national body, Tennis New Zealand, and would not interfere in the management of our interclub competitions.

Listening to this, we could feel the ground shift but there was money in it for the sport so we voted for it, just as we voted this week for another enticing proposal from the game's new hierarchy.

Up until now, clubs have maintained their regional and national bodies fairly naturally with a levy on every member. Now it is proposed to freeze each club's contribution forever at the membership figure it reported last season or the season before, whichever is the lower.

The reason for this strange but irresistible arrangement is that Tennis New Zealand thinks clubs have been under-reporting their membership to minimise their levy, and those are the figures it needs for Sparc's favours. Freezing the levy might remove an incentive for dishonesty and reveal there are many more than the reported 40,000 New Zealanders playing tennis.

In my time we have never deliberately under-reported membership but it is not that insinuation I find sad, it is the fact that grassroots finance is considered less valuable to a sport "going forward" than money from other sources.

It probably doesn't matter whether the money comes from the Government, corporate sponsors, television contracts or pub gambling trusts, the consequences are the same. Rugby clubs are still wondering what hit them when their game went professional.

Before the World Cup last year I went around northern provinces in search of rugby at the grassroots and found it practically extinct. I saw clubrooms empty on a Saturday night, a few ageing stalwarts having gone home to watch a night match on television.

Club officials told me they were sharing their facilities with other sports now and still there was not much sign of life. The walls were bedecked with portraits of club All Blacks of the past but there are none coming on.

Good young players today don't come from clubs, many are barely seen in their home province before they appear in premier ranks.

Provincial representative teams these days struggle to draw a paying crowd and their unions are run largely on All Black earnings handed down by the NZRU, some local sponsorship and, crucially, pokie grants.

Rugby is much further along this road than other sports but I daresay all the Olympic medals won at public expense last month could tell a similar story.

When our tennis club voted for the new affiliation fee model this week we didn't give much thought to the fact that it meant the interests of our ruling bodies were no longer quite the same as ours. Sparc sponsorship requires them to increase the numbers playing tennis, not necessarily in tennis clubs.

They have made no secret of this. They are promoting their facilities to people who might not be inclined to pay an annual subscription to a club. Quite a number of club members would go for that.

It has been suggested that clubs could offer "casual" memberships too, which would turn them into little more than court-hire agencies.

Voluntary associations that people form without need of coerced money or a commercial return are a measure of a healthy society. It is sad to see them succumb.