For Sarah McGovern, keeping her kids in sport is crucial, but also overwhelming.
“This year’s soccer registration was two weeks earlier than usual. We were going to pay the rates, but I put them off and thought, they can just be late,” she says.
For both boys, MiniRoos registration fees are $300 — but they also need to fork out for boots (kids’ feet grow fast), shin pads and uniform kits each season.
It’s a long drive to buy new gear, so when she’s not teaching at the nearby preschool, Sarah often spends her time hunting for second-hand items closer to home.
“I keep an eye out on buy, swap and sell Facebook pages. The club doesn’t offer subsidies, and they don’t have second-hand soccer boots,” Sarah says.
“It might not seem like a lot to other people, but we’ve got to plan for these things.”
Living on a lower income in a regional NSW town, there’s the added fuel costs to get to training and game day.
Summer swimming lessons also impact the budget, but it means the kids are safe around water, where their dad, Aaron works long hours as a skipper.
For Jasper, 6, and Charlie, 8, who are both autistic and have ADHD, playing soccer means everything to them.
Sarah says it’s worth every cent to see them develop lifelong skills and self-confidence.
And with Jasper being offered a spot on the representative team next year, they’re still figuring out whether they can afford to travel to training twice a week and pay for the higher soccer fees.
For now, the family manages to scrape by.
But not all families can prioritise sport
Recent data from the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) AusPlay survey reveals that the cost of sport in Australia — as well as time commitments — are two of the most common reasons why many kids across the country aren’t participating.
It shows 43 per cent of children aged 14 and under participated in out-of-school organised sports activities at least once a week.
And children were less likely to participate if they were from a low-income family, lived in a remote or regional area, or spoke a language other than English at home.
It also shows families on average spend $600 per child last year on sport, compared to $520 in 2019.
Australians are being invited to share what they think are the biggest barriers and benefits to sport, which will then help shape up the first-ever strategy to elevate general participation.
The work is being driven by a steering group made up of 17 diverse experts from across the country, with their own experience on the value and impact sport provides.
Cameron French, the ASC’s general manager of participation, says the data clearly shows that affordability and time commitments are big issues.
“We’re hearing that travel costs in regional and remote areas, as well as the time it takes for families to take kids to sport certainly factors in,” he says.
But it’s about ensuring all families can access sport in the first place, Mr French says, including those from diverse backgrounds.
“We want to work together to find solutions,” he says.
Mr French says once the steering group finishes its consultation phase, the finalised strategy will deliver a “range of practical projects” to be rolled out nationwide.
Access for all kids, everywhere
Jacara Egan, a Muthi Muthi and Gunditjmara woman, is an ex-VFLW player and member of the participation strategy steering group.
She’s deeply passionate about the health and wellbeing of young First Nations people.
As well as working with Headspace as a national manager, she’s an assistant coach for the Essendon VFLW side.
“Sport was a really significant part of my life growing up. It’s given me many gifts,” she says.
“We know sport gives life and leadership skills. Since the beginning of time in our mob there’s been sport.”
Working on a national strategy is one way she wants to help give other kids like her the opportunity to thrive.
“My family had to make sacrifices to allow me to play as a kid,” she says.
“Some days I’d see mum crying, wondering how we were going to pay the bills. But to her credit, we never missed out on one thing we wanted to do in sport.”
She says there needs to be an investment in supporting kids to participate at all levels.
That could mean more funding for grassroots sport, or a commitment from “big business” codes like Football Australia and the NRL to make club-based sports more affordable.
“When I think about my boys, or any young person or athlete, I think they deserve to have people around them that understand and can coach them, whatever level they’re at,” she says.
“I think we are challenging ourselves [with the strategy] to build something that will have an impact on the overall goal — increasing participation — but focusing on families experiencing this day to day.”
For this family, it takes a village
In the metro areas, ferrying kids across suburbs all weekend can sometimes feel like a part-time job.
But in regional and remote areas, it can take a whole day just to get to one local game and home again.
That’s not just time, but a tank of fuel.
Madeleine Gooda’s daughter Lily is a rising star in Rockhampton, in central Queensland.
She plays rugby league locally, but has also been selected for the under-14 regional team.
“We come from a family of rugby league players. League is what we live and breathe here,” Madeleine says.
She’s thrilled to see Lily’s recent growth in confidence and is supporting her dream to play professionally one day.
Madeleine, a Bidja, Iman and Ghangulu woman, describes her family as fortunate.
Alongside Lily’s dad William Munns, a Wadja man, Madeleine invests a huge amount of time and energy into giving all three of her kids a chance to play sport.
She also fundraises within her local area to cover the cost of travel, gear and fees.
The recent state championships on the Gold Coast would have left them more than $4,000 out of pocket — something they just didn’t have to spare.
But with her own mum’s help, Madeleine was able to fundraise to cover everything.
“Where I come from, there’s a lot of people with their children making all these representative sides. There is so much untapped talent out there,” she says.
“It’s so great to see these kids excelling. But [their families and community] are working hard to fundraise like I am.”
Madeleine says that without people in her community volunteering their time to coach, organise and transport kids to games and training, it wouldn’t be possible for many to play.
“We have a really strong support system in place. For us it takes a village to raise a child. And we’re very lucky we have a really big village.”
With families usually expected to donate their time and skills towards coaching, training or team management, the ASC’s strategy is also looking at what impact this has on participation levels across all sports.
Mr French says “flexible” options requiring less commitment from parents, or “opt-in” and “opt-out” roles for families are becoming more popular.
“We need to do more to make sure that the volunteers — who tend to be parents of the kids — have a great experience. It’s a real focus for the commission,” he adds.
The national sport participation survey closes on June 16, with the strategy expected to be released later this year.
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