As professional sport is pushing ahead with plans to restart the big money competitions, grassroots sport is facing a huge challenge in getting local players back on the field.
This week Australian community clubs covering football codes, netball and basketball have been sent information packs about the protocols needed to allow grassroots sport to resume, although all seem to have one thing in common – confusion.
Most states are approving small outdoor training sessions of no more than 10 participants from Monday, but there has been little clarity about how and when competitive action can resume.
There’s also logistical, legal and financial realities about how volunteer-run clubs can meet the high barriers being set – including appointing COVID-19 safety officers and ensuring hygiene standards are met.
The safety officers will be required to complete an online training course and then be responsible for maintaining compliance through an exhaustive list of rules that includes maintaining training logbooks and dealing with breaches.
Earlier this month Sport Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport drew up the guidelines for COVID-safe sport.
At the time the federal government conceded that the return of amateur sport would not be “completely synchronised” with professional leagues, and so it has proven.
“It’s important that people should be able to see the sport, but they should be able to play it as well,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison, offering only that children’s sport would begin before adult competitions.
What has since become clear is that getting the money-spinning elite sports up and running is proving difficult enough in a safe manner, and the challenges presented by amateur leagues have slipped down the list of priorities.
In New South Wales, rugby league’s community clubs had not expected to be back on the park until at least July, with an existing health order banning sport until at least June 29.
The financially haemorrhaging NRL had been the main instigator of getting professional sport back on the field, pushing for and getting permission for a May 28 resumption, albeit with no crowds allowed.
But at grassroots level, any ban of gatherings of more than 100 would make it almost impossible for clubs to carry on without crowds.
As one official at a Victorian regional sporting club told The New Daily, the new guidelines did little to allow clubs to plan for a resumption given they only dealt with small group training and not broader issues of how and when games could resume.
You can’t have community sport without the community … so without a bar, without a canteen, without a crowd you don’t have sport.’’
Community clubs in all sports are currently being told to prepare for sport to restart.
But with no clear date in mind, there’s also no path to making the finances stack up given many clubs have not received – or have refunded – fees, memberships and subscriptions.
Grassroots soccer around the country is feeling the pinch, with FC Birrarung president Randall Nodin saying the “moving feast” of state government health and Football Victoria guidelines made it hard to make definitive plans for the season.
“We’re keen to re-engage with our community from June 1 and some of our coaches are already devising training drills to overcome the non-contact and social distancing restrictions,” Mr Nodin said of the junior community club based in Princes Park in inner-city Melbourne.
“But we’re going ahead on the understanding that change rooms and canteen will be out of bounds, and only toilets will be opened as kids turn up. But all that could change again on July 1.”
Sharing facilities with summer sports was one issue that restricted how long the winter season could be extended, while training in groups of up to 10 was problematic for older age groups.
Mr Nodin said one upside was the pitches had been given a “well-earned rest”, ensuring the playing fields would be in excellent condition once competition begins.
But as the AFL and NRL scramble to get their revenue-generating seasons back on TV screens, at a local level football officialdom appears to have little urgency for a resumption.
AFL Victoria has sent its member clubs a six-page document listing rules it says are designed to ensure training can resume in a “safe, hygienic and controlled manner”, but there is little clarity on return dates that would make training a more focused experience.
Basketball Australia on Wednesday also released its resumption guidelines to state and territory member associations.
BA chief executive Jerril Rechter said the priority was to minimise the risk of community transmission.
“Basketball is one of Australia’s highest participation sports with over 1.5 million active participants and we know the safe return of training will have far-reaching physical, mental and social benefits throughout the basketball community,” Rechter said.
“Our priority remains the health and wellbeing of our community and ensuring we all play our part in stopping the spread of COVID-19, while increasing basketball activities in line with state and federal government restrictions.”
Netball Victoria said the new group training guidelines would at least allow teams to gradually begin to reconnect with their clubs and peers in a safe and cautious manner.
With players now returning to training, many clubs are now looking at how to pay for the outgoings of running a sporting events.
The Australian Sports Foundation has launched an appeal to help clubs that may be suffering from financial hardship, offering to direct tax-deductible donations to needy organisations.
The New South Wales government on Wednesday also topped up local clubs, with acting Minister for Sport Geoff Lee announcing $4.6 million for 799 organisations as part of the Local Sport Grants Program.
“We are all looking forward to seeing community sport return to normal when it is safe to do so, and this money will provide vital funds to help organisations be ready to resume as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted,” Mr Lee said.
“Some organisations will buy uniforms for kids to relieve financial pressures on families, whilst others will increase female participation and leadership in sport.
“Women’s sport has experienced enormous success and growth both on and off the field in recent years and we want that momentum to be revived after the worst of COVID-19 has passed.”