Athletics Terra Australis

Running on empty

Dan Silkstone
December 18, 2008
Other related coverage

* Changes needed or sport will wither on the vine
* Fears for Australian medal haul


IT HAS been the best of times but, mostly also, the worst. On Beijing’s hot nights, in August, Australia’s track and field athletes grabbed four medals, one of them gold.

It was the team’s best Olympic performance in 40 years, despite the absence of medal fancies Jana Rawlinson and Nathan Deakes. It placed the green and gold eighth on the athletics medal tally. It was a very good year.

So much for the bit of the iceberg visible above the water. Australian athletics now faces some serious hurdles. When chief executive Danny Corcoran took over in 2004, Athletics Australia had just made a $1.3 million loss.

“We were in substantial trouble financially, confidence had been lost in us as a sport and we were in self-destruct mode,” the Athletics Australia chief says. “We had a damaged brand and no viable programs. It has been a fair repair job.”

That loss has gradually been turned into a surplus, projected to be $60,000 next year. But the balance sheet turnaround has been achieved by stripping costs. Actual revenue — the money created by the sport — has shrunk during that time, from $8.5 million in 2004, to a projected $7.4 million next year.

Earlier this year, the Australian Sports Commission was so worried about athletics that it commissioned a report into the sport by Melbourne consultancy group Gemba. It makes unhappy reading for Corcoran and his team.

Finished in July, the report highlights glaring difficulties: an inability to commercialise the sport, a fading brand, no link between juniors, emerging and elite programs, few attractive events and no major sponsor.

Corcoran says athletics is now financially secure but the effect of the cost cutting has been to severely limit programs and promotion, cutting spending from key events and pruning television production costs, meaning an inferior product is delivered.

Telstra pulled out as major sponsor in 2007 — a deal worth $1 million a year. For 18 months the sport has searched in vain for a replacement. None has emerged and only top-up funding from the Federal Government has kept athletics in the black.

The Gemba report looked at the sport’s commercial attractiveness. What it found was deeply worrying.

Corcoran is a king of nothing. Athletics matters at Olympic Games time and at the Commonwealth Games but those teams and the money they create are owned by the Australian Olympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Association. When the nation turns to watch track and field, Athletics Australia — expected to run the sport, develop athletes and create champions — reaps little or no reward.

“When the athletes are most visible they are not our properties,” Corcoran says. “What do we have to offer to a sponsor?”

Then there are juniors — the biggest of many glaring problems for the sport. The dominant program, Little Athletics, has no relationship with Athletics Australia. Little Athletics began in the 1960s and has grown up completely separate and frequently at loggerheads with the senior body. It is independently run and has refused any attempts to integrate or merge.

Each year 100,000 children participate in Little Athletics but the sport’s chief governing body plays no part in their development, has no commercial stake in them and does not even know who they are.

Added together these factors mean that those running the sport do not own the junior structure or the elite one. Imagine if the AFL had no stake in either its Auskick program or its finals series?

Athletics now is where soccer was eight years ago, Corcoran says, but without the natural advantages that sport had. Soccer had junior numbers and it partly fought its way back by imposing a levy on them, reaping millions that was ploughed back into developing a commercially attractive product to sell to sponsors, the government and the public.

The lack of a junior program is also a missed opportunity for potential sponsors interested in community engagement and public health (think of NAB and its links to Auskick).

“If sponsors want to talk to us about the areas of health, family and community they are not ours either,” Corcoran says. “These structures have emerged over the past 40 years and now they are holding us all back.”

An even bigger problem lies with talent identification. Of those who sign up for Little Athletics each year, less than 1 per cent are still participating in the sport by the time they reach adulthood. It is a disastrous figure, a dropout rate far worse than any other major sport.

The two organisations have almost opposing philosophies. Little Athletics is purely about participation and fun. It sees itself as helping children exercise and as a pathway to a range of other sports. There is little attempt to funnel those children into the dilapidated club system run by Athletics Australia, into specialised coaching or training, into keeping them in athletics.

The “churn rate” — the number who leave the sport each year — is around 50 per cent. In sports such as football or cricket a 20 per cent churn rate would be cause for concern.

In the absence of any pathway, athletically gifted youngsters are usually playing footy, soccer or netball by the time they are 12.

It is not just kids, however. Adult participation has been stagnant for the past 20 years, according to the Sweeney Report. It has declined from 18,000 in 1990 to 16,000 in 2007.

At the elite level, Australia is outspent by rivals, and uses much of the money it does have on travel to race on the other side of the world.

The Gemba team was asked by the Australian Sports Commission to value athletics as a property in the marketplace. On a list of 13 major sports, assessed for participation, spectator numbers and TV viewer figures, athletics ranked a distant 13th. It lagged behind AFL, both rugby codes, V8 Supercars, soccer, netball, swimming, golf, tennis and cricket.

The number of coaches has been stagnant for 20 years and — unlike in swimming — most are unpaid or poorly rewarded. Yet, somehow, Australia produces quality athletes. Few people who matter believe it can continue without dramatic change.

ATHLETICS Australia makes little money from media deals — in fact, it must pay production costs in order to have key meetings shown on television.

Efforts will be channelled into creating more palatable TV-friendly events, but new events cost money and few funds are available.

“We know from filling the MCG for five nights in a row (during the Commonwealth Games) that there is interest in top-quality athletics when Australia is competing in the green and gold,” says Danny Corcoran, the chief executive officer of Athletics Australia.

“We need new product and product that is meaningful.”

There have been rare successes. The Sydney Marathon gets strong media coverage and nets the organisation about $200,000.

A new “Ashes” meet pitting Australia against England is planned for next year. A deal has already been done for British television and Athletics Australia is negotiating with the Ten Network for Australian rights.

But the mega-media rights deals that channel cash into the main football codes, tennis and cricket are a distant dream.

PARTICIPATION is a massive problem. Athletics Australia has virtually no development pathway. Little Athletics and its 100,000 juniors have no link to Athletics Australia and the relationship between the two bodies has historically been distant.

Senior participant numbers have slipped from 18,000 to 16,000 in the past two decades. The number of people signing up for fun runs has also been declining. A lack of coordination between junior athletics and the elite level means most interested kids are lost to the sport.

“By the time they reach 15, almost all of them are gone,” Athletics Australia chief Danny Corcoran says. “They are gone to other sports, nobody has shown interest in keeping them, they realise they are not going to be a champion — there’s a whole host of reasons why.”

Gifted athletes are draining to the football codes, netball and basketball. But less talented juniors are also a big loss when they should become future junior coaches, club officials and — most important — fans and spectators. Keep them involved and your sport has a fanbase. Lose them and they seldom come back.

“If we don’t have a strategic shift towards development, this will continue to plague us,” Corcoran says.

For adults, there are other issues. The average park footballer almost always follows the AFL. But the average weekend jogger is often not involved with the sport except in the most casual way.

MAIN sponsor Telstra hung up on Australian Athletics in 2007. Times have been lean ever since.

Athletics Australia has an apparel sponsor — Asics — and has second-tier sponsors that bring in about $300,000 a year but there is a big gap in the accounts that is being temporarily filled by the Australian Sports Commission.

In 2004, government funding accounted for 49 per cent of Athletics Australia revenue. Next year it will be 85 per cent. Corporate support has dried up. Sports management firm ESP was hired to find a replacement but had little success and has been let go. In the present financial climate, sponsorship is hard to find. “A lot of the people we have meetings with just say they are not taking anything on. Budgets are just frozen or being wound back,” Athletics Australia chief Danny Corcoran says.

But there remains a perception that the governing body — unable to offer access to juniors or high-level elite competition — has little to offer a sponsor. Steps are being taken to fix those problems, but it will not be cheap or easy. Without a new backer Athletics Australia will not collapse — it has cash reserves thanks to a series of prudent surpluses — but it will stagnate.

“It just means diminished programs,” Corcoran says. “You can go on running low-level meets like the sport used to be, but if we want to have something commercially attractive we need to grow.”

Great report but nothing new. Hand responsibility to Little Athletics and watch them shit their shorts…but the bastards won’t raise a finger to help the sport whose base they have stolen in their own interests.

But the sport at senior level is also paying for decades of lazy and blind administrators - who couldn’t see the potential in Little Aths, couldn’t see the potential in the Fun Run boom, couldn’t see the need to vertically integrate and display/facilitate a pathway from the kids to the elites…on and on.

Kit Kat,

As the report says the problems are enormous.

Compared to 10 years ago the numbers in little as in the older ages are becoming seriously low.

Few senior clubs work hard enough to transition la’s kids to senior clubs.

There are insufficent coaches to develop athletes of all levels. I think this holds us back. While we need to encourage the elite juniors as the report says we need to encourage the athletes at the level belwo that as well.

I think there is not enough competition for all athletes. Interestingly next week ANSW has the competition for athletes but has set standards to compete. What message does this give for the athletes who can’t meet this standard.

I look at the current NSW State rankings and many of them are held by junior athletes. While most have competed in school competition we should be strongly encouraged these athletes to continue on for a long time.

I think there is not enough competition for all athletes.

In my opinion, there is too much scattered competition throughout the year. Way too much.

Let’s take the most vulnerable age group 14-18

Comp available; All Schools, ACC, Schools Knock out, High Velocity, State League, LA, what else?

Schools - Zone, Region, State - 3-4 meets [no. of events average 3-4 in a day]
ACC - Region, State - [2 meets a season - no. of events 3-5 average]
LA - Region State - October - March 20 meets no. of events 4-5 every Saturday
Relays - region/state - 2 meets i a season 2-3 relay runs per meet
State League - October - March around 15 meets/finals Saturdays - 2-3 events average
HVC - 1 meet a month - 2 events average

Now, take a 15yo girl/boy who competes in LA and State League but also is talented enough to compete at state level through out a year.

Do not forget - nationals, PSG, and invites, even pro Gift runs.

Do your maths and you will see why with lack of good coaching and too much competition we just do not have enough young athletes who successfully transition from “little to big” stage.