Why sport and physical recreation is more than a fringe player in Australia

While sports is overwhelmingly popular in Australia, it accounts for only 1.6% of the country's total household spending. Dr Bob Stewart, a leading sports analyst and author of Sport Funding and Financeexamines the sector's business, employment and community impacts to assess its true social and economic value.

Australian sport may only account for 1.6% of total household spend, but its macro impact on the economy is strong. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

IN STRICTLY STATISTICAL terms, the Australian sport and physical recreation sector is a “fringe player” in the national economic game. In 2010, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found that spending on sport accounted for only 1.6% of total household spending.

Another interesting result from the ABS was that spending on sport accounted for just over 12% of total leisure and recreation spending – a sector that included the arts, cinema, books and tourism, as well as sports, exercise and games.

Considering the popularity of sport throughout Australia, this relatively small spend is even more surprising.

The ‘fringe player’ and employment

The same fringe player status can be ascribed to sport when its employment capability is examined. According to 2011 Census data, just under 96,000 people were employed in occupations directly related to sport.

There were:
  • 25,000 fitness instructors;
  • 11,000 green-keepers;
  • 10,000 swimming instructors;
  • just under 4,000 lifeguards;
  • 4,000 stable hands;
  • 3,500 sports centre managers;
  • 3,100 horse trainers;
  • 3,000 sports umpires;
  • 2,500 gymnastics instructors;
  • 2,500 boat builders and repairers;
  • 2,500 tennis coaches;
  • 2,300 sport administrators;
  • 2,000 recreation officers;
  • 1,400 outdoor adventure instructors; and
  • 1,600 footballers.
At first glance these figures seem significant, but they come with two reservations.
  • First, they account for only 1.5% of all paid employment nationally.
  • Second, only 43% were employed on a full-time basis, whereas the broader economy boasts a figure of 63%.

Australian athletic participation

We should not discount the significance of sport in Australia when it comes to assessing the resources that support its progress and sustainability, and the contribution it makes to the overall wellbeing of the community.

First, Australians spend a lot of time playing sport. ABS surveys have found adult participation rates to be around 75% – although this figure includes those who play only occasionally.

A 2014 survey found 49% of children aged six-to-13 were regular swimmers, while 48% played soccer on a regular basis. Cycling, athletics and basketball had participation rates more than 30%, while cricket and netball had participation rates of around 25%. And many children participate in more than one sport.

In addition, sport not only attracts millions of spectators every year, it also delivers large audiences to advertisers. The Australian Football League (AFL) and National Rugby League (NRL) Grand Finals rarely draw fewer than 3 million viewers from around the nation. And pay-TV provider Foxtel has always understood the drawing power of sport to lure viewers from free-to-air stations.

Finally, nearly every significant Australian corporation finds value is attaching itself to a large-scale sporting event in an attempt to increase product awareness, build the brand, and expand its customer base.

Sports by the numbers

It should also be remembered that sporting competitions like the AFL and NRL are multi-million dollar enterprises. The AFL revenue for 2015 exceeded A$480 million, while its broadcasting rights agreement for the 2017-22 period provides a $2.5 billion cash inflow.

Nationally, the AFL employed 16,000 staff in 2015, as well as thousands of players and umpires. While only 29% were full-time, this is still a sizeable employment base for a single-sport competition.

Sport is also underpinned by a broad base of volunteerism. According to a 2008 ABS survey, of the 6 million Australians aged 18 years and over who participated in volunteer work, sport and physical recreation organisations attracted 2.3 million people.

In contrast, religious organisations had 1.4 million, and community and welfare organisations had 1.3 million volunteers. At the other end of the volunteer spectrum, the arts and heritage sector could only secure 400,000-500,000 volunteers on a regular basis.

According to the AFL’s 2015 Annual Report, around 175,000 volunteers contributed 14 million working hours to the operation of Australian rules football around the nation. This was the equivalent of $289 million in labour.

Sport also delivers economic impacts that go beyond match attendances and sponsorship deals. For example, the Australian Open tennis tournament is estimated to earn Victoria state more than $200 million annually.

Community impacts

Sport also provides many other benefits.

It has been shown many times that physically active communities secure significant health and social benefits, while also being more productive in the workplace. World Health Organisation studies have shown that for developed nations, physically active individuals save from US$500-$1000 a year in overall healthcare costs.

Conversely, sedentary communities are more likely to be less healthy and productive, and more socially fragmented.

Similarly, other evidence suggests that workplace physical activity programs can reduce sick leave by an average of 12%, decrease healthcare costs by an average of 25%, and increase workplace productivity by an average of 15%.

Australian studies also show that increased health-care costs for managing diseases exacerbated by physical inactivity, such as stroke, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer, and depression, could be as high as 17% of the annual A$9 billion.

Key player in the national economy

Consequently, sport not only gives people pleasurable things to watch and play in their spare time, but also supports many businesses, sporting associations and clubs.

Furthermore, it provides “external” benefits in the form of more socially connected neighbourhoods, healthier communities, lower healthcare costs, and more productive workplaces.

While Australian sport will never have the commercial clout to bring the economy out of recession or solve a regional unemployment problem, it is more than a fringe player in the Australian economy. And when its role in enhancing the wellbeing of the Australian community is considered, it truly is a key contributor.

This was the concluding article in a short series on equality in, and access to, sport originally published on The Conversation. Read the others here.