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Sports clubs fighting for survival

A number of Wellington sports clubs are featured in a nationwide survey that has revealed nearly two-thirds of them are either losing money or just breaking even.

RNZ story by digital and sport journalist Bridget Tunnicliffe

In the New Zealand Amateur Sport Association’s inaugural national survey of clubs, 22 per cent of respondents said their memberships had fallen over the past five years.

The survey was undertaken by the Association in partnership with the Auckland University of Technology.

Chairman of the New Zealand Amateur Sport Association Gordon Noble-Campbell said 77 per cent of clubs reported receiving no direct funding from any governing body, despite 90 per cent having to pay affiliation fees or levies.

He would like to see the governing bodies put more emphasis on grassroots sport.

“National governing bodies for all sporting codes and perhaps the government itself needs to think about how resources are being provided back into the grassroots of community-based sport. It’s not necessarily about money, it is also about providing resources whereby time-poor volunteers can get the right type of support around things like strategic planning, financial accounting, managing health and safety.”

He said a strong sense of altruism came through.

“Every respondent said a key part of being an amateur was that they’re not in it for the money, that they believe in the benefits of sport in the community, that volunteering is a key part of making sport accessible to everybody.”

Gordon Noble-Campbell said some sports like football and basketball were bucking the trend. Some football clubs in Auckland, which has a growing Asian population, have had to cap numbers.

Futsal, a variation of football which is played indoors is experiencing strong growth, as it’s seen as a convenient option.

But for more of the traditional clubs, times are tough.

Robbie Hutchinson is club captain at Upper Hutt United Cricket Club, having been involved in the club for 11 years.

Their membership is declining with just three senior teams, three social 20/20 teams and one women’s T20 team.

“Life’s changed, especially from a cricket point of view. It’s a sport that takes all day and I think player’s time is more precious now, maybe jobs are asking more of their employees than they were 15 to 20 years ago.”

He said not enough school leavers were joining clubs.

“There’s a finite talent pool coming out of colleges every year and we’ve got 12 clubs in Wellington that are trying to attract those players to their clubs so it’s not a very pretty picture at the moment.”

He said New Zealand Cricket should be “panicking” about the effect a weak club system was having on elite cricket.

He said there was a trend where promising players were completely bypassing club cricket.

“The future elite players are coming out of school cricket and they’re coming into premier club cricket and they’re being thrown straight in the deep end alongside younger players. They don’t have the older heads to learn from and to kind of learn the game through playing alongside that experience. I think probably the professional game’s realised that and there’s a bigger gap now between the club game and the professional game. And I think players will no longer will be selected from club cricket to go into that representative system or it will become increasingly rare,” Hutchinson said.

“Players are being identified at under-16 under-17 level and then being adopted into that kind of Cricket Wellington, Auckland Cricket, Canterbury Cricket system and then that’s where they’re developed, they are no longer being developed through club cricket.”

He said Cricket Wellington was looking at how to reinvigorate the club competition but the focus was on how they could make the premier competition more sustainable.

“I think their focus should be how to make club cricket more sustainable and I think the simplest answer is there’s too many clubs in Wellington and also look at the kind of cricket we’re playing.”

He said a lot of people were giving up the game because they didn’t want to play two-day cricket which was all that was on offer at top level club cricket.

“The organisation have got a ready made product in Twenty 20 cricket that they could utilise better … that could be a vehicle to keep players in the game. It’s three hours, then players can go home and spend time with their family.”

He said New Zealand Cricket might have a false sense of security because of the large numbers of junior players across the country.

“Cricket is probably still riding that wave of the 2015 world cup but those kids leave school and the game is given away, they just don’t come out of school playing the game anymore and you end up with all these clubs trying to attract 15 to 20 players and it just doesn’t work.”

Royal Oak Bowls was only formed 13 months ago following a merger of the successful Onehunga and Hillsboro clubs in Auckland.

Club president Gale Ward, who held the same position at Onehunga, said the merger did not have to happen but it had been the best thing for both clubs.

“Both clubs could have survived. Both clubs had property they could have kept selling,” Ward said.

“[But] I think we both had the vision that we didn’t want to be last man standing …there’s no pride in that.

“I didn’t want to be the president of the club that closed with cobwebs over it.”

She said while a lot of bowls clubs were full of retired people, they still had a lot of working members.

“We’ve got 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds playing now and we have 20-year-olds playing in the social leagues, but they’re not full-paying members.”

Tony Walsh is the club chairman from Wellington’s Western Suburbs Rugby Club and has been involved with the club for 35 years.

He said there was a more fickle nature to clubs now.

When the club’s top team lost its premier status the bulk of their players all left the club and they never really recovered from it.

“Once you’re going downhill it’s very hard to put the brakes on so I’m keen for us to stick it out but I don’t have the answer to turning it around it really does need people to drive it and finding enough people to even go on your committee is difficult these days,” Walsh said.

“There’s all sorts of issues with rugby clubs with volunteers and getting people to be involved. I mean you just can’t get people to coach or manage like once upon a time and people’s time is important to them on the weekend and it’s all changed.”

The club has just two senior clubs despite a strong junior division which was around 460 this year. But there is a huge disconnect between junior and senior.

“We don’t see them coming back when they go off to college … it’s well reported that the drop off once they go to college in playing sports there’s so many other options available to them.”

He expects clubs in Wellington will have to amalgamate because of so much pressure on clubs and a shrinkage of players.

Barry Teale, club captain at Newlands-Paparangi Tennis Club. Photo: RNZ / Bridget Tunnicliffe

Barry Teale is the club captain at Newlands-Paparangi Tennis Club in Wellington and has been with the club for 40 years.

When he started there were 68 seniors, now there are nine.

“Over the summer months you could come down here between now and February and fire a machine gun and hit no one, there won’t be anybody playing. There might be one or two or four people of our nine seniors, maybe four of them will get together and come and have a hit once a week … but this place is terribly unused,” Teale said.

He said the club had a strong junior programme but as soon as they left school they gave up the game.

“There is no one that plays in this club between the age of 17 and 30 and it hasn’t been that way for the last five years, maybe longer, kids just have so many more other things to do. I don’t think tennis is seen as cool anymore, they’ve got their phones, a lot of them are working in the weekends. They just disappear and then they have a family and then we never see them again, sometimes until they’re 40 and then they come back and play.”

How much longer can the club survive?

“Not long, the people running it are people such as me, who are well over 60 and a number of other people and when we go the club will fold.”

The first of the Association’s regional seminars to discuss the survey results, will be held in Wellington tomorrow, 12 December.

(RNZ)