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Player meet-and-greets and truckloads of Gilberts: It's time RA started looking at grassroots growth as an investment instead of an expense

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Roar Guru
3 days ago
21

Anyone who has read things I’ve written in rugby forums before knows that I am the guy who bangs on about junior rugby participation a lot. Only now I’m doing it with even more words!

What I’m going to bang on about here is that unbelievably, the issue of growing sports at the grassroots level in Australia is even more widespread than I first believed.

It’s not an issue unique to rugby. I was having a beer at the pub with a couple of mates who love basketball and football (soccer), and those sports are in exactly the same boat, if not worse.

Perhaps global sports have a further set of challenges due to the extra layer of world administration bodies and/or bloated corporate administration at the national level?

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

From what I can see, the common problems seem to be the following:
– A total single-minded belief that top-down growth is the best and only way forward. Spending everything at the top in the hope of success at pro-level will make everything magically better, despite decades of evidence to the contrary.
– A desire for a quick turnaround. Constantly chasing an immediate boost or sugar rush that will look good on reporting for the current CEO and board. As well as a total lack of will to undergo a proper long-term structural rebuild from the bottom up that will take 5-15 years. No one wants to be the one to have nothing shiny to report on in the first few years of their tenure.

That’s it. Two main things.

Sure, there are a myriad of other small issues and problems. But it is these main two overarching strategies that administrations have continually applied in all three of these global sports.

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I’m a rugby fan, who also cares about basketball and football I hear you say? Fair enough. However, the addition of these other two sports increases the sample size of the data. All three are failing against league and AFL, and all three are global powerhouse sports with pretty decent organic participation with absolutely zero help from the top, and all three have adopted the same strategy for growth of the game.

Free-to-air TV is often touted as the main issue, and no doubt it was a huge loss not having it through the 1990s and 2000s, but unfortunately that ship has sailed. FTA viewership is in the doldrums, in rural areas TV signal booster towers are literally being decommissioned due to no longer being needed. Streaming is the here and now.

Watch every match of Super Rugby Pacific ad-free, live & on demand on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport

We can’t go back in time, we can only build from here and with no magic bullet broadcasting option out there the growth must come from other strategies. Besides having FTA through its boom time, what have NRL and AFL actually done well? They have spent money at a national level on grassroots participation at schools.

Anyone who has ever read anything I have written previously will know I also bang on about AusKick, but you know what, it’s a great program, and it’s worked. Hell, it got Aussie Rules established in Queensland! We don’t even need to invent the wheel, it already exists.

It actually isn’t rocket science. Send some athletes with some free merch into schools to promote the sport and a participation program, include autograph signings and other publicity stuff.

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Wallaby players sign autographs for fans

Wallabies signing autographs in 2017. (Matt King/Getty Images)

Are a bunch of Grade 3 kids fully aware of who these players visiting their school are? Probably not. But would they know who they are and what sport they play after this exciting role model comes to their school and gives them free stuff? You bet! Case in point, my kids got excited about some free dumpling thing they got at the local shopping mall and wouldn’t shut up about it for two weeks.

So, why has Rugby Australia not done anything before now? Great question.

There’s not enough money and the separate state-controlled RA voting system are the usually-touted reasons. These are issues that need to be solved, absolutely. But are they really preventing us from creating ‘RugbyKick’ or whatever name we want to call it?

No. Cut out some wasteful spending from somewhere, or find a Twiggy-type sponsor to secure $1 million per year. Get Gilbert to do us a deal on a literal crap-tonne of branded balls and merch that can be handed out at schools.

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We already have 30-odd contracted and paid ‘full-time’ athletes working in all major Australian cities. Surely it wouldn’t be hard to get them each to do ten school visits per season and hand out free balls and free posters or something. The NRL and AFL players do it, why not the rugby players?

That’s 300 or so schools per year in Perth, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, and Brisbane. It might not be perfect but it’s a great start. We aren’t talking about cutting the whole Super Rugby budget out or anything. Just take a small portion of those funds to actually grow the game. I’ve heard talk from RA of growing the community game for the last couple of years, but I am yet to see any meaningful or decisive action taken.

I understand the hurdle: money is still rugby’s big problem in this country. Yes, that is 100 per cent true but how do we increase revenue? More TV viewers, more fans through the gate, and more merch sales, right? Newsflash: people who play rugby generally follow and support the game. If we grow the player base we grow the fanbase.

A couple of million spent on grassroots growth might return its investment two or threefold. For round numbers, let’s say $1 million worth of Gilberts and signed posters could potentially equal 10,000 more juniors participating nationwide. If those new juniors attend three Super Rugby matches, plus mum, dad and siblings, this could easily equal over $500 per family of new revenue. So based on very rough maths, the initial $1 million investment could potentially return $5 million.

My maths could be way off the mark here but the concept is the same regardless of the actual numbers, more junior players equals more revenue. Not to mention that the initial investment of the free Gilbert and school visit might translate to a fan for life; recurring revenue that most businesses could only dream of.

Joe Schmidt. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

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Not to mention the fact that we have a Lions Tour and World Cup coming up in Australia. What better time to mobilise the 150-odd employees of professional rugby in this country to get out there and get kids into the game. I’m sure the players would be happy to play their part to help grow the game, it’s probably 20 hours total per season worth of time commitment. Plus if it does increase revenue as I suspect it would, the players are literally helping to increase their own earning potential via better contract deals.

Rugby needs to stop looking at grassroots investment as an “expense” and start looking at it as what it is; “an investment”. Any business that stops spending on growth will eventually shrink its way to obscurity.

Now, let’s imagine if every grassroots club in Australia had 25 per cent more U/6-U/12 players at the start of next season. Then a further 10 per cent the following season, and so on. Think of the impact that would have on our Colts and Pro system in five or ten years.

Unfortunately, no one likes a ten-year strategy. There must be a quicker way. There isn’t. We’ve tried it. We’ve been trying it for 29 years. Top-down just doesn’t work.

Yeah the Wallabies winning more would also help, and all those other things too, but we have to actually fix the system. Promote the damn sport to the people who will be playing it in ten years. Let’s get kids actually trying rugby, and the kids who enjoy it and are good at it will keep playing it. It’s not going to happen in this fractured state-based piecemeal way, it needs to happen nationally with an actual plan and a properly funded grassroots growth program.

We keep trying to harvest fruit from an almost barren tree, but we haven’t planted any seeds to establish new trees in 29 years. Utter insanity.

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