20/04/2022 - 09:36

Sports seek re-engagement post-pandemic

20/04/2022 - 09:36

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WA’s peak sporting bodies say they’ll need to work to ensure fans keep coming back through the gates.

Sports seek re-engagement post-pandemic
Michael Roberts joined the WAFC in January 2021. Photo: David Henry

There’s an unmistakable optimism among the leaders of the state’s biggest sporting and recreational organisations.

The obvious question is why, particularly after nearly two years of COVID-caused cuts to revenue and widespread postponement of team sports activities.

For Western Australia’s largest organisations in this sector – Racing and Wagering Western Australia, Western Australian Cricket Association, and the West Australian Football Commission – financial disruptions seem to be levelling out.

However, a separate issue emerging from the pandemic is getting participants back in the rhythm of engaging in sport, and bums on seats, as COVID habits prove difficult to shake.

Not out

Hosting only four Perth Scorchers T20 games and no international cricket meant the WACA lost out on $18 million in revenue during the past two years, according to chief executive Christina Matthews.

The 20-Test Australian wicketkeeper made no attempt to play down the financial impact of COVID on the WACA, the second-largest sporting organisation by revenue in the state according to Data & Insights.

“When you look at it as a number you [wonder] ‘how we are still operating?’” Ms Matthews said in jest.

WACA revenues were trending upwards in the years prior, thanks to a bustling Big Bash league schedule and more fees earned from a new WACA members area at Optus Stadium.

But the pandemic quickly halted that momentum and turnover dropped from $38.5 million for the 2019-2020 financial year to $32.5 million for 2020-2021.

A mixture of cost-saving measures, about $2.5 million in JobKeeper payments and lower outgoings helped steady the ship to some degree.

“Like everybody else, we were lucky because JobKeeper helped with that,” Ms Matthews said.

“And while we didn’t get the revenue, we also saved expenses by not having matches and so forth.”

 However, she said the pandemic created issues beyond the bottom line. “We’re a sporting organisation that’s members based and it’s about engaging with people,” Ms Matthews said.

“We’ve been lucky from a community point of view that that wasn’t affected, but the broad engagement across the elite end of the game is something we’re going to have to work hard on over the next few years to rebuild.”

Working on the assumption that cricket scheduling will return to pre-pandemic ‘normal’, Ms Matthews said the focus would be changing habits around attendance created by COVID, and getting fans re-engaged.

“It’s not just business as usual. It’s going to be convincing people that not having international cricket is not the norm,” she said.

Another pressing issue is the $115 million WACA Ground Improvement Project, which Ms Matthews said was likely to incur cost overruns.

“Obviously it never rains but pours and we’re struggling with escalation in the construction market at the moment,” she said.

“So, like every project in Perth, it’s over budget.” Ms Matthews said while the project’s planned 2024 opening would be delayed by about six months, she was optimistic about the outcome.

“With challenge comes opportunity,” Ms Matthews said.

“The opportunity in this was it gives a really good chance to test your business acumen and your skills in keeping people together.”

Plenty of on-field success has also lifted spirits, including Perth Scorchers winning the Big Bash Final 2022 and Western Australia ending its 23-year Sheffield Shield drought earlier this month.

Ms Matthews said having multiple distinct formats for the game had advantages.

“Big Bash does allow for new fans and international or Test cricket [is] for those traditionalists, so it’s a balance of the two, not one or the other,” she said.

“The thing is just getting people re-engaged, whatever their style of cricket is.”

Bouncing back

Seasoned sports executive and WA Football Commission managing director Michael Roberts said Australian rules football’s cultural standing in the state opened a lot of doors for the organisation.

“I really get excited about the fact that football can be used to deliver change in people’s lives,” Mr Roberts told Business News.

WAFC sits at number three on the Data & Insights list of largest sporting and recreational organisations by revenue.

That revenue is mostly from the state government, followed by funds provided by the AFL and royalties from the West Coast Eagles and the Fremantle Dockers, which it owns.

But WAFC was forced to take strict measures to combat the $8.1 million drop in revenue that COVID brought in 2020.

“We reduced our costs by about 25 per cent and that included staffing, so we lost about 25 per cent of the staff from the football commission,” Mr Roberts said.

Unlike cricket, football was afforded more opportunities for home games in between COVID lockdowns, which helped the commission rebuild its turnover.

This went from $23.2 million in 2020 to $32.2 million in 2021, in part due to an extra $3.8 million in royalty revenue generated after the Perth-hosted AFL Grand Final lifted club profits.

In 2018, player participation was at 342,433 across the state, growing to 346,729 in 2019. In 2020, which captured the first season for the sport in the pandemic, player numbers fell to 93,437.

Last year those numbers bounced back, to 278,040. But Mr Roberts said while crowds were starting to return, some hesitation remained.

“When you’ve got a club like West Coast Eagles, which has over 100,000 members, and they’re getting 20,000 to a game even though the capacity’s 30 [thousand], they’re still leaving empty seats,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that people have been a little hesitant to get back to that crowded situation. “But hopefully as confidence returns within the community, we’ll see those numbers go up to capacity where they should be.”

Racing ahead

Racing and Wagering Western Australia is the clear frontrunner on the Data & Insights sporting and recreational organisations list.

Revenue for 2021 was $397.7 million compared to $332.4 million for the 2019-2020 financial year.

RWWA chief executive Ian Edwards said the prosperous period was a product of strategic planning and an unexpected COVID boost.

“You’ve got this combination of some good strategic decisions that were made three or four years ago that are now starting to bear fruit, allied to the fact that we’ve got a big boost in performance, popularity and revenue through COVID,” Mr Edwards told Business News.

He said the fact that racing had been able to continue during peak COVID had helped win a new share of the sporting audience.

“Effectively, all of the sporting eyes were on racing for that period,” Mr Edwards said.

“Because racing was able to continue, it’s won a new audience … if you’d like, we’ve converted sports betters or sports spectators to racing.”

Assumptions about the social concerns of racing and RWWA’s reliance on the WA TAB, which contributed $373.7 million to turnover for 2021, are seemingly not reflected in revenues.

But acknowledging there were stakeholders with those concerns, Mr Edwards said part of the solution was opening doors to the industry, something he hopes to do more of as CEO.

“We respect that people have different views and encourage that,” he said.

“But for those who are open to seeing what we do, I think that showcasing the good things that we do is really important, and probably something that we haven’t done enough of in the past.”

The WA TAB was put back up for sale in October 2021.

It is understood the government is receptive to looking at a model where the transaction value could go back to the racing industry.

WA TAB reportedly had a valuation of $1 billion in 2016.

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