“Everyone’s struggling”: The precarious future of sporting clubs in a post-COVID 19 world

Sporting clubs COVID-19

The Coburg Table Tennis Centre's 'Keenagers' group. Source: supplied.

In Melbourne’s inner-north, the 80-year-old Coburg Table Tennis Club is one of many recreational sporting clubs evaluating the long-term impact of their enforced hiatus.

The prognosis for these grassroots institutions across Australia appears to be dire, with predictions that 40% of clubs will struggle to reopen as a consequence of COVID-19 restrictions.

Coburg Table Tennis club manager Ed Menegol says the club will have to “knuckle down, raise funds or dip into its cash reserves that were set aside for building renovations” once the restrictions end.

“We receive the occasional government grant for things like putting wall-padding on the walls — as a number of elderly players have chased the ball and gone crashing into the walls — but most of the money we have raised is through our [200-250 strong] members, and the activities that the club runs,” Menegol tells SmartCompany.

“Coburg has been around for a long time, and is the fifth or sixth biggest sporting club in Victoria. Fortunately, we are in a solid position and can generate a reasonable cash flow.

“Our difficulty will be that, when we reopen, we will have to refund people, or extend their membership. The impact down the track will be about three months of lost income.

“We will have to deal with that, but I don’t think it will threaten the viability of the club.”

Menegol says the club has applied for the JobKeeper wage subsidy payments but he is unsure if the centre will be a beneficiary of the scheme.

“The JobKeeper program is in chaos and flux at the moment and things are changing on a daily basis,” Menegol says.

“One way or another, we’ll find a way to open.”

“Everyone’s suffering”

Formed in 1947 and now with about 280 members, the Bankstown Sports Hockey Club has put everything on hold amid the suspension of national competitions.

President Graeme Barnard expects things to return to a “new normal” by at least July 18, which is the resumption date announced by Hockey NSW.

“I have been telling people that we are poised to start back as soon as restrictions allow us too. I’m hopeful that something will happen before [July 18], but we’ll have to wait and see,” Barnard says.

“Hockey is a non-contact sport and we don’t touch the ball so I think we’ll adjust to social distancing in the future. Restrictions might include zero spectators but we could play quite safely.”

With most club and district association hockey clubs in New South Wales relying on volunteers, Barnard is confident that “they’ll be right.”

However, he worries about the financial impact this will have at an administrative level.

“This has been a frustrating period and everyone is suffering,” he says.

“We are lucky that our fixed costs are low, and people will continue to be members of the club in the long-term.”

“The longer the shutdown continues, the worse it will be”

As NSW is looking to ease some of its coronavirus restrictions this week, ClubsNSW — which represents more than 1200 licensed and registered recreational clubs across the state — says it is “crucial that clubs are allowed to re-open their doors as soon as it’s safe to do so”.

“We estimate that more than 40 per cent of clubs will have difficulty reopening,” a ClubsNSW spokesman told SmartCompany.

“It’s particularly difficult for the many rural and regional clubs in areas already heavily impacted by the recent drought and bushfires.”

The ClubsNSW spokesperson says the JobKeeper program has provided relief for many of the 36,000 workers that have been stood down, and has “been an important subsidy for clubs — who have retained approximately 20 per cent of their workforce during this shutdown”.

“However, clubs are currently making a collective $212 million net monthly loss, which is unsustainable,” they said.

“The longer the shutdown continues, the worse it will be.”

“A big shock to the system”

With the age of players at his centre ranging from 9-90, Menegol says it is difficult to measure the wider impact that will result from the Coburg Table Tennis Centre’s temporary closure.

“Lots of people come to club for social contact and they are the ones who are suffering the most. Particularly the Keenagers [players over the age of 50] as this may be a primary form of social contact for them,” he says.

“It has been a big shock to the system.”

However, the centre’s Facebook page has kept the community spirit of the club alive as members share tips, challenges and social activities that can be played at home.

Barnard shares a similar sentiment, saying members of the Bankstown Sports Hockey Club have been engaging with links and training videos on social media.

“Hockey is a skills sport, and you can perform some activities in your lounge room,” he says.

“I think it has helped to keep the fabric of the club together.”

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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