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Governments are desperate to fund elite sport - and it's leaving the grassroots to wither

By Chris Lewis - posted Wednesday, 6 September 2023

Australian governments of all levels should apply equity considerations when funding sport and recreation needs, in line with 2022 data which indicates that football has 1.25 million participants, basketball 995,000, Australian Rules 620,000, rugby league 198,000, rugby union 146,000, and field hockey 198,000.

But, as sports funding trends stand, something needs to give if Australia is to more adequately address grassroots sport.

While sports such as football have high participation numbers on overused fields (as most evident in Sydney), the increasing role played by state and federal governments to support elite sport, major events and stadium construction, ultimately diminishes their ability to help local governments meet their local parks and infrastructure needs.


Whereas the ABS indicates that local government provided around 50 per cent of the total $2.1 billion spent on sport and recreation during the 2000-01 financial year, research by ABC journalists suggests its proportion of funding had increased to 65 per cent of the $11.5 billion of public funds provided in 2021.

Have local governments been reasonably fair to the different sports? Only sports insiders involved in community sports can answer this question, yet 2008 data from the Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (12 local councils) indicates 1 football field for every 4,000 people, 1 cricket pitch per 5,300 people, 1 rugby league/union field per 17,000 people, 1 Baseball/softball diamond per 22,800 people, 1 shared use field per 41,500 people, 1 hockey field per 68,000 people, 1 Australian Rules field per 68,000 people, and 1 athletics track per 76,000 people.

But today local governments are expected to uphold grassroots sports infrastructure needs despite their own revenue struggles to meet increasing community expectations at a time when grants from the federal government alone have declined from 1 per cent of Commonwealth tax revenue under the Hawke government to 0.55 per cent.

At the same time, state governments have spent considerable sums on world class stadiums to help the major sporting codes and events, despite the contribution from state and territory governments, to total sport and recreation public funding declining from 40 per cent in 2000-01 to 30 per cent by 202,1 if the ABC research is to be believed.

Based on 2023 dollars that allow for inflation, the final cost to state governments for recent stadiums includes $2.2 billion for the Perth Stadium, $980 million for the Sydney Football Stadium, $775 million for the reconstructed Adelaide Oval, $402 million for the Western Sydney stadium, $380 million for the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium and $262 for an upgraded Kardinia Park (Geelong).

For football fans, knowing that existing fields cannot cope with growing numbers of participants (especially Sydney), some resent the assistance directed by state and federal governments to the Australian Football league (AFL) and National Rugby league (NRL), despite such leagues receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from television rights deals, sponsorship and high attendances.


Although expenditure on modern stadiums helps all football codes host big club and international matches, one critical study points to the AFL and NRL securing $192 million (15 projects) and $124 million (14 projects) for high-performance centres from 2010 to 2019.

The problems confronting grassroots sports and need for urgent action were evident in a 2018 report commissioned by the Northern Sydney Region Organisation of Councils, in line with the reality that local councils do not have the income to fund land acquisition.

Suggested policies included:

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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All articles by Chris Lewis

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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