September 11, 2012

Opinion: For grassroots sport to grow, funding model must be overhauled

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Brad McCarroll is director and founder of Mutual Sport. The company was established in 2007 to address the large gap in support services being provided to organisations which use sport for social development as well as those in the community sport sector. Mutual Sport improves outcomes for all parts of society with a particular focus on those living in disadvantaged and diverse communities.

With heavy media attention focused on the suggestion that more government funding will be re-distributed to grassroots sport in the wake of the London Olympics, it’s a crucial time to provide deeper analysis as to why this may not solve many of the participation and performance issues in Australian sport.

Is grassroots funding the solution? It depends. It depends on how you define ‘grassroots’, what you are trying to solve and to whom the funding is distributed.

I absolutely believe in more funding and resources to support grassroots,  however question whether the current system is the best vehicle through which to achieve equitable outcomes for all parts of the community.

Hence as people (myself included) sprout forth on the ‘more funding to grassroots’ message, I believe that more detailed questions need to be considered especially from the perspective of those responsible for the funding, namely, the Australian Sports Commission, State Governments and National Sporting Organisations:

  • Which organisations should get the money and the resources? Clubs, governing bodies, or other?
  • As volunteer run entities, are clubs capable of using more money to change their processes to improve outcomes (if so what outcomes need to be changed?)
  • Are national and state governing bodies, being so removed from, and often in conflict with the “grassroots”, best placed to use the funding wisely, and again, for what outcome? Will their own financial pressures continually influence their priorities away from grassroots? Will the funding be used to prop up their own bottom line, with funds set aside for grassroots diluted across 4 – 6 layers of bureaucracy in the community sport system?
  • Are alternate organisations, successfully operating outside the sport system, by meeting the demand / need of an ever changing society, better placed to achieve outcomes? Again what outcomes? These organisations include: private sport providers operating in school and community settings especially in mid to upper income areas and charitable and non-profit organisations delivering sport free in lower socio economic areas.


I have a good idea of the outcomes Australian society wants from grassroots funding. These would include:

  • More talented athletes moving into professional and semi- professional sporting ranks – this is basically how the Australian sport system is set up today.
  • Improving the quality and level of participation in physical activity for all children and youth.
  • Improved personal, health and social development of the individual – outcomes that sport is espoused to achieve, though is not always the case.
  • Improving community outcomes associated with inclusion, cohesion and building capacity of the children, youth and families.

So we know what we want, but can the sports funding system achieve these goals?

 What relationship will the sport system have with school programs that enable all kids irrespective or ability, culture or SES  status to enjoy sport the same way other kids whose families have the financial and logistical means and cultural understanding to engage with clubs?

Frankly, with its current archaic structure, government funding almost entirely distributed to national and state bodies, and ever-increasing funding needed to prop up the professional / elite part of sport, I believe the sport system in Australia is not equipped to achieve real outcomes for ‘grassroots’. Especially as I consider ‘grassroots’ as the club system and beyond, and inclusive of all people in communities who do not and cannot access the club system.

This first appeared at

Image: Shows the 2nd Leg of the Football United v Tribal Warrior Annual Cup at The National Centre for Indigenous Excellence (NCIE). Kwabena Appiah-Kubi and Jason Trifiro from Western Sydney Wanderers attended the day – back row of photo. Image is from



  1. Great article. Australia’s depth of sporting talent is far greater than the current funding model reaches.

  2. Well said Brad – lots of important questions for sport policy makers to consider. I think most important issues for governments at all levels to tackle are 1) infrastructure and 2) capacity-building, ie ensuring volunteer organisations have access to the advice, support and training they need to stay viable. State Sport & Rec departments themselves need to be properly staffed and skilled to allocate and manage these funding programs, with systems in place to ensure funding recipients are accountable for the money they get.

  3. Hi Brad, I am interested in your premise but I’ll offer another. Grassroots Sport (whatever that really means) is actually very healthy in this country. What is the acceptable rate of grassroots participation? 6% unemployment is often seen as full employment in this country – what is acceptable in terms of grassroots participation and how do we measure that?

  4. Brad McCarroll

    Hi Matthew, thanks for the comment. My definition of Grassroots Sport is the Community club system, schools, development through sport programs and private sport providers. The Sports Commission and National Sporting bodies would define the Grassroots as purely the Club system. Looking at the system from a club perspective – from so many measures – it is not healthy when you take a whole of community perspective. It is healthy for those who have the means to access it and then the ability to benefit from its pathways. As the Crawford Report highlighted – “it is increasingly the domain of white middle class Australia”. The Sport Commission does not seem report publically on club participation rates though these are some of the unqualified stats I have seen
    – 27% of children access the community club system – I have heard a statistic that only 1 million children are involved in club sport
    – 10% of children / youth from Multicultural backgrounds access clubs
    – 67% of children participate in one or more organised session of sport / physical activity per week. What about the other 33%!!!
    – I am heavily involved in a charitable Football Program across Western Sydney – 80% of the kids in this program do not play in a club

    These stats are compounded by an overburdened and shrinking volunteer workforce. Ask any club committee member if they think the “Grassroots” system is healthy and what the challenges are that they face? You will get some interesting perspectives.

    The only environment where you can provide quality programs accessible to all children is in schools where, unfortunately again, the kids that benefit most are those who make it to school teams. The quality of programs for ALL kids, especially those in low SES areas who cannot afford the pay for service gym, dance, AFL school programs, is not getting any better and is delivered in a crowded curriculum by teachers with limited training to do so.

    By those approximate measures above – the level of participation especially high quality participation is surely a major issue for Australian Society let alone the sport system.

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