Sport for good – rethinking the sport system

Sport for good – rethinking the sport system

The sport system today has evolved around two primary outcomes – getting more people (and generally kids) playing ‘my’ sport, and winning on the world stage, whatever the world stage may be for any given sport.

Those involved in sport talk about the individual and societal benefits that sport offers, and often, when seeking funding or positive praise, emphasise some of these things – improved health, increased social capital etc.  – and suggest that these are the driving force behind organised sport.

So, what would the sport system look like if the infinite game of organised sport was indeed the health and well being of people and communities? If we re-imagined the sport system with these being what’s its all about, rather than increasing participation and winning on the world stage, would we be playing a different finite game in organised sport today?

Some might say we would end up with what we call ‘recreation’, others might suggest that this is not such a bad outcome!

But, if we were to try and understand what it is that makes sport compelling to many, but re-thought the approach to considering a different set of fundamental outcomes, would we have what we have today?

We need to think about the evidence model, we need to think about the formal structures, we need to think about  how we present the case, but more importantly we need to debate what our infinite game is!

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Community sport, the “killer app” in social services?

Community sport, the “killer app” in social services?

Sport New Zealand manages a community sport budget of $93m (as at 2013-14). These funds are distributed to partners including national sports organisations, regional sports trusts, territorial authorities and many others.

The purpose of community sport funding is to “advance the values of sport”, defined as:

  • sport contributes to healthy bodies and minds
  • sport is a part of our way of life
  • sport enhances communities
  • sport benefits the economy

Relative to other social services that contribute to healthy bodies and minds, enhancing communities and benefiting the economy, community sport receives relatively low levels of funding; think health, social development, police, justice and economic development.

Are the current levels of community sport funding ‘reasonable’ given the impact that well funded sport and recreation could have on individuals, communities and the economy? Are we effectively measuring this impact (in and of itself, and compared to other government funded activities)? Can sport demonstrate sufficient evidence to support significant funding increases?

The bulk of public funding is directed towards ‘bottom-of-the cliff’ activities. Supporting people when things have gone ‘wrong’ be they crime, health, emotional or physical harm. Much of this is unavoidable, however all the ministries and organisations providing these services have objectives related to prevention and/or rehabilitation. To what extent does sport and recreation support these objectives directly? Much of what Sport NZ sees as the  value of sport speaks directly to these organisation’s objectives.

We recently saw youth line funding cuts, yet plans to increase spending on prisons… why? Is it really that hard to measure the positive impacts of necessary social services?

NZ Police are seeking ‘safe communities ’, the Corrections Ministry wants to reduce re-offending  through rehabilitation programmes, education and job training, the Ministry of Justice has a desire to work with sector colleagues to help make sure New Zealand is a safe and just society.

Sport and recreation can create safer communities by providing positive opportunities for young people at risk. An environment where they are wanted, accepted and a part of something bigger than themselves.

The Ministry of Health aims to improve, promote and protect the health and well-being New Zealanders. Sport and recreation can (and does) play a major role in health promotion and protection, but there are more opportunities that could be exploited with better resources.  

To demonstrate the impact requires both a seat at the table and evidence of impact. Does sport and recreation get invited to the table, possibly sport more than recreation? What is needed for sport and recreation to demonstrate evidence?

And where does education sit in all this. Schools participating in a recent Sport in Education initiative report improved retention and attendance. In a University of British Columbia study, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. In a Georgia Health Sciences University study, researchers found people aged 11 to 17 years who committed to 20 to 40 minutes of vigorous play everyday exhibited enhancements in brain activity after three months, all of the students showed “remarkable” improvements in their math skills and the students that exercised the most showed an increase on standard I.Q. tests. So, why is it so hard to institute consistent, regular exercise in the classroom?

What does sport and recreation need to do realise its potential in positively contributing in the way Sport New Zealand states? The mix is likely to include:

  1. An evidence base that is sound and relevant.
  2. A professional and knowledgeable face to stakeholders, including politicians and policy makers.
  3. A seat at the table from the start, not as an after thought.
  4. Great relationships between partners internal and external to the sector.

Playing the infinite game means recognising what your organisations purpose is, how it can make a difference and being able to change your approach, your players, your rules to remain relevant and continue to achieve your purpose. The sport and recreation sector needs to take a solid look at itself, work out what’s its purpose is and change the rules, behaviours and players to achieve this.

Social capital, the big sporting opportunity?

Social capital, the big sporting opportunity?

In a technically connected world the opportunity to retreat into smaller and less diverse physical communities is becoming easier and easier, so the need to actively develop social capital becomes more critical.

Social capital is the glue that connects people and communities;  peer groups and families – people who hang together; communities and individuals  in similar socio-demographic groups; and people from outside each others social, economic and demographic groupings.

Should and how can sport be engineered to develop social capital?

A social capital dilemma exists in the world of organised sport. Social capital creates close ties between club team mates, volunteers and fans, but conversely, due to the competitive nature of sport, such deep bonds can erode social capital between like people with the creation of superficial allegiance barriers. Think football fan violence as the ultimate portrayal of this. Provincial rivalry, state against state – innocuous statements of gamesmanship or social capital destruction?

Social capital  can create bonds between communities that ordinarily have little to no interaction. If engineered, could sport play a part in developing this linking social capital? Sports that have a high cost barrier (snow sports, golf, rowing, cycling etc.) create barriers to social capital, but others such as football, rugby, running, with low economic hurdles, present an opportunity. Recreation is ideally suited to developing linking social capital – costs nothing to go for a walk in the park. What is the opportunity to develop a social atmosphere around these otherwise individual or family activities?

Street sports, which attract a wide range of people are a great chance to develop social capital that spans socio-economic groups. The unifying voice in street sports is often brands – Red Bull, Vans etc. Is this good? Is it desirable that kids connect over brands to create a sense of community? Nike sure thinks so!

New Zealand community sport and recreation has a sophisticated structure. Along with organised sport, regional sports trusts traverse traditional sport boundaries, schools, councils and a menagerie of community sport and recreation groups. Surely, structured and motivated accordingly we have a massive opportunity to build positive social capital, and indeed shouldn’t that be our infinite game – connecting our communities and people?

Live rugby, it’s not all about the players and the ref!

Live rugby, it’s not all about the players and the ref!

Can the live rugby experience be revolutionised by adding referee-spectator interaction and a better big screen experience? 

A common theme develops talking to rugby spectators, you go for the atmosphere. So much action happens at such close quarters spectators, 100m from the action, have no idea when something happens – either a penalty is committed or the play carries on.

Should rugby referees take responsibility not just to signal to the players (and in practice half of them have no clue either) what the infringement is, but also to the crowd? Could a series of hand signals (most are there already), better still flags, be developed so the ref could communicate to the crowd precisely what has happened? 

Should TV have a responsibility to provide a better stadium experience? The ref is mic’ed up already, what if he just told the TV director the play (foul or otherwise), they could put this on the big screen, overlaid on a replay clip if available? 

A rugby game is not that different than going to a music concert. It is great to see the whole act, but when the lead guitarist is playing a solo you really what to see the skill of his hands on the fretboard. Big screens are an intrinsic part of a concert experience. Concert producers don’t try and improve the live music experience by playing rugby on the big screens, so why do rugby event producers play music to improve the rugby experience, rather than maximising the rugby?

Should rugby re-think what it means to attend a game? It is not all about the players and the referee, the spectators are as much a part of the event and need to be treated accordingly. 

Could Sonny Bill Williams transform American Football?

Could Sonny Bill Williams transform American Football?

Arguably SBW transformed Rugby Union (for the better) with his offloading, in the way Jonah Lomu transformed what a rugby winger could do. Could SBW do the same for American Football?
Lomu was ready to sign up with the Dallas Cowboys as a running back when he was encouraged to play one last rugby gameby Eric Rush and so sealed his fate and the first global rugby superstar was born.
American Football allows passing backwards or sideways (according to the ground, not the direction of the players hands) anywhere on the field. Behind the scrimmage line (where the players line up at the start of a play) the ball can be thrown forward (generally the role of the quarterback, but not exclusively). If the quarterback is throwing short it will normally go to a running back with long throws tending to go toward the sidelines to a wide receiver. And when the throw is complete, the receiver is tackled and so endeth the play.
Perceived wisdom is that the cost of a turn over in American Football is so high that is not worth the risk of dropping the ball during a pass between players in motion. However, benefits of yardage are so high that surely, if looked for, trained and coached accordingly, there are low risk opportunities to be exploited? And the long quarterback throws are not necessarily a high percentage choice anyway.
There is also a view that it is too hard for the pass receiver to focus on both catching the ball and, at the same time, be aware of defending players around him. This of course, is what rugby players are expected and trained to do all the time. Given the focus of the defending players (once the quarterback has passed) is on the pass receiver, there are generally a number of offensive players free. 
Think back to rugby league say 20-25 years ago. Practically no one passed until the final play in a set. Perhaps it was the increase in rugby union players migrating to league in the 90s that helped spark a significant change? The passes increased, the tempo picked up significantly, the skill level improved and the game became way more exciting.
The question, therefore remains, could an athlete with the talent of an SBW or Israel Folau, playing as a wide receiver, catching the quarterback’s throw, and offloading in field to a strong, fast running back in the mould of Julian Savea revolutionise American Football? Or is it that short plays work well for television advertising and the almighty sponsorship dollar is really what drives the coaches call?

America’s Cup, the cocaine of  our sporting world?

America’s Cup, the cocaine of  our sporting world?

I​t’s expensive, it’s mired in controversy and illegal allegations, and every few years it gives you a hit that you can’t resist!

Grant Dalton is our perennial drug dealer. He makes money with a smile, gives us a brief high and when the high wears off we are left wanting, but with nothing there.
Who wasn’t getting up at 8 o’clock most mornings a couple of years ago to snort another line, sometimes to be left with a buzz,  other mornings the low hit way too soon, yet we kept coming back for more. And in the end we were left weeping in the gutter.
We know the the pushers and suppliers are making ridiculous sums of money and boy do we hate them for it. But when they serve up the goodies, we can’t resist. We gotta give it another go.
And who get’s to make the rules, well the mega-rich of course! 
As the Bermuda regatta approaches in 2017 are you thinking – just a rich boys sport, not interested, spoilt billionaires showing who has the biggest… bank balance? You betcha! And when the final comes around, and Team NZ are lined up like a white line in the corner of a dark nightclub, who will be the first to roll up a hundie and suck it in!

Televised rugby on a football field just doesn’t work!

Televised rugby on a football field just doesn’t work!

​The last two All Blacks tests, against Ireland and Italy, were played on an American football field and a football (soccer) field respectively. In comparison to games in New Zealand, the televised result was pretty lousy. 

Rugby is a complex game to produce. There is a need for long shots during open back play, mid-range shots during set pieces and tight close-ups at tackles and rucks, with flexibility during 1st and 2nd phase play. It is critical for the viewing experience to be right there in the action. It’s hard enough to know what’s been penalised, but when you can’t even see the game, it’s nigh on impossible.

In the Italian game there were way too many long shots (great in football), the director was too slow to get in tight after a tackle, and the number of times that a replay would have been great, but we were treated to a lovely, but irrelevant slow mo was a wee bit frustrating.

Some of this is because of the field and the options for  camera locations, but some of it is the taste, competence and experience of the production team.

How much does the coverage of rugby in non-rugby locations, with directors that are not attuned to rugby affect your viewing pleasure? How much does it affect the journalists who write about the games – much harder to praise the work of a #7 in the ruck when you can’t actually see what he is doing? And, more concerning, how much does it affect the coaches, who must rely on live footage to some extent?

Should the Sky Sport rugby production team cover All Blacks test when in neutral locations – they really are very good?