26 January 2021

Can Canberra sporting organisations survive another year of COVID-19?

| Tim Gavel
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Ben Kirk

CEO Softball ACT Ben Kirk says the sport was doing well 18 months ago. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

A number of Canberra sports organisations and clubs are struggling at the moment as they navigate issues totally out of their control.

It has been horrendous over the last 14 months, with bushfires then smoke in some cases wiping out entire competitions or events, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

I know individuals and communities have suffered considerable loss well beyond that of the sports community, but that aside, sport is an integral part of communities and plays a role in helping people socially, emotionally and physically.

Many Canberra sports organisations function financially through canteen sales and player registrations. Without those sources of income, some are concerned about survival. To its credit, the ACT Government has assisted through the waving of costs associated with ground hire, but water costs remain prohibitive.

Through the COVID-19 crisis, some sports have only managed to make it this far thanks to JobKeeper.

But if JobKeeper disappears and the COVID-19 restrictions continue, it could dramatically impact sports organisations and clubs.

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To fully understand the impact of the bushfires, smoke and pandemic, it is worth looking at an individual Canberra sports organisation to see how it is faring during this time.

Softball ACT, one of the more progressive mid-range Canberra sports with just over 1,000 members and a turnover of $600,000 to $700,000 a year, has two full-time and two part-time staff members, as well as casual employees for functions and events.

While the membership base may not be the size of other Canberra sports, Softball ACT has bolstered its finances by staging events and tournaments.

January is normally the big month for Softball ACT, but CEO Ben Kirk says last January was wiped out by the bushfires and smoke. This year, COVID-19 prevented the Australia Day Carnival which normally features around 60 teams from Canberra, NSW and Victoria from going ahead.

The organisation lost $120,000 last year because of the bushfires and smoke.

The cancellation of this year’s Australia Day Carnival was another financial hit as the tournament was expected to bring in around $60,000 in revenue.

“Eighteen months ago we were flying,” says CEO Ben Kirk.

“We were looking at changing our governance model, we had a progressive board and things were going well. Then we got hit by the bushfires, smoke and then COVID. We need the revenue from events to service members. Despite the setbacks, we have insulated our members for the most part, and they haven’t been impacted by our exploding costs or revenue losses.”

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Planning for infrastructure improvements to the Hawker facility is in full swing, with funding locked away for a new viewing platform and shade structure among the changes, as well as $500,000 in LED lighting upgrades promised by Labor during the election.

And Softball ACT, like many Canberra sports organisations, has benefited from JobKeeper. It has been worth around $90,000 to the organisation thus far.

The hope for sports organisations like Softball ACT is that by the time JobKeeper is phased out, they will be fully operational as they were before the pandemic.

Conversely, the worry is that if Job Keeper goes before sports are again up and running, they will struggle to survive.

Ben, though, is optimistic.

“I am confident we will get through this and bounce back. Tough times breed tough people, and that’s what we’re showing ourselves to be.”

That optimism might just get sports through what has been a torrid 14 months of survival.

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