With pork-barrelling season in full swing, we will be seeing plenty of politicians hitching their wagons to prominent sports and sporting teams. The proclamations that sports are True-blue, dinky-di, Aussie will come to win over voters, with a little somethin’ somethin’ in the budget to sweeten the deal. Because sport is king in Australia, right?
Aussies are routinely described as sports mad, sports addicts, and that we love watching and playing sports in sporty sports ways. But how many of us actually play sports? How many of us actually watch sports? Given that you could describe weekly matches of football as repeats of the same teams doing the same thing for months on end annually, it is worth taking a look at a few of our assumptions about the claims.
Let’s start with a look at how many Aussies play “sports”. Inverted commas around sports? Yes, because when people say that 60% (11.1 million) of Aussies play sports – down 5% compared to 2 years previous – what they actually mean is that we’re classifying walking and generally not sitting on the couch watching TV as sport. Let’s make it fairer on sports and subtract the walkers from being classified as sport participants. And let’s not succumb to temptation and call golf just more walking with intermittent cursing. That means that our 11.7 million “sports” participants is suddenly 7.5 million, which is 41.4% of the population (and falling with the ageing population). That figure sounds impressive until you realise that figure is participation of at least once in the past year and doesn’t account for the regularity of participation. How regularly someone is involved in sports is a much better indicator of our interest and love of sports. As opposed to accounting for that time you went to the gym because of a New Year’s resolution or because the doctor ordered you too out of concern for being dragged into an orbit around you at your next visit. The reality is that less than half of the population engage in regular (3 times per week on average) physical activity, with roughly a third of those people being gym junkies (NB: young men are more likely to play a sport, that drops with age and isn’t replaced with other activities, whilst women are more likely to be involved in non-organised sports and remain doing so).
The Top 20 most popular physical activities are dominated by fitness activities like the already mentioned walking, aerobics/fitness, swimming, cycling, and running. One of the big name sports, AFL, ranks 16th on the list behind yoga. When yoga beats football for popularity it must only be a matter of time before the PM declares it the most exciting sport. For those wondering where rugby is on the list, the rest of Australia says ‘hi’.
Of course, this is only looking at sports. How does sports participation compare to other activities? Well, ABS figures show that we spend roughly 23 minutes a day reading, versus 21 minutes on sports and outdoor activities (NB: this varies between genders and age groups). The US figures show similar results with more time reading than playing sports, but they also spend less of their day on both activities. So at least we are still better read and fitter than Americans in the low bar metrics.
Obviously sports aren’t all about participation and most would regard themselves as avid armchair sportspeople. It could be argued that the best way to stay injury free in sports is to participate from the comfort of the couch in front of the TV at home. The other option is to attend a sporting stadium dressed in clothes made from random assortments of gaudy colours to cheer on a team who are wearing similar clothes but are less inebriated. Or would the most appealing option be to go to a movie, concert or theme park? The correct answer is that people would prefer to attend a movie (59%), a concert (40%), or a theme park (34%). Live Comedy (31%) was more popular than Football (30%), Cricket (29%) and Rugby (25%).
Of course, someone is bound to point to spectator numbers for AFL, A-League, and NRL that look very impressive. With average match attendances in the tens of thousands, and millions annually, sports are clearly important.
|Competition||Total spectatorship||Average match attendance||Year||Ref|
|Australian Football League||6,975,137||33,696||2014|||
|Big Bash League||823,858||23,539||2014–15|||
|National Basketball League||574,813||5,132||2013–14|||
|National Rugby League||3,060,531||15,940||2013|||
At a glance the figures look mildly impressive, but much like enhancement pouch underwear, things aren’t nearly as impressive when you look at the attendance figures in the cold light of day.
Even if we disregard the doubling up and totalling of attendance occurring in the stats, it is easy to see that even the most popular sport in Australia would rank behind visiting Botanic gardens, zoos and aquariums, and libraries. They aren’t even in the same ballpark as cinema attendance. But we can go deeper on the reading, library and cinema figures, even getting frequency statistics so we can tell the difference between the people doing something “at least once” versus people doing something regularly in the past year. 47.7% of people are reading a book weekly, 70% of library attendees (mostly women) visited at least 5 times in the past year, 65% of Australians are (computer) gamers, and 65% of Aussies go to the cinema an average of 6-7 times a year. And yet sport has a segment in news broadcasts whilst reading, gaming, and parks and zoos battle to get media coverage. Technically if we wanted to be fair then the sport segment would be cut to make way for movie news and a live cross to the local library.
What about the economy? How much are households spending on sports? That’s a great question and a great segue into a discussion of how trickle-down economics doesn’t work in sports either. I mean, funding sports that way when it hasn’t worked in the economy must be a no-brainer, right? [Insert low IQ athlete joke here] Or we could stay on topic and discuss the $4.4 billion sports and physical recreation spend by households annually. Let’s not complicate things by talking about the buying of stuff like footwear, swimming pools, and camper vans. Seriously, camping is in the sport spending category? Either way, $4.4 billion sounds like a lot of money, until you realise that gaming is a $3 billion industry, and that households spend $4.1 billion on literature and $4.7 billion on TV and film.
We allow governments to spend a lot of money on big sports and big sporting events. Think that hosting the Olympics will encourage people to play sports? Nope. Actually, seriously, nope. One report described this idea as nothing more than a “deeply entrenched storyline”, sort of like a fairy tale handed down from one Minister for Sport to the next. Part of the problem is that we buy this narrative hook, line, and sinker, such that the sports themselves (and surrounding data agencies) never really bother to keep statistics to prove the claims. But they make for great announcements and ribbon cutting events on the election campaign trail, so the myth keeps on keeping on.
Ultimately the argument isn’t that sports are unpopular or bad but rather that we spend an inordinate amount of time pretending we like them far more than the reality. And that is impacting our elected officials more than a chance to wear a high-viz vest at a press conference. Maybe it is time to rethink what media and funding we throw at sports, and perhaps consider a gaming segment on the news.
So this pork-barrelling season look forward to the announcement of a new multi-million dollar yoga stadium in a marginal electorate near you.
Update: Charlie Pickering and The Weekly team cover some similar points for the Grand Prix events in Australia.
NB: I haven’t covered sports injuries, particularly how over half a million Aussies have long term health conditions as a result of sport. Please see this report for more.
Australian Sport Injury Hospitalisations 2011-12