Why is sport underfunded in helping to address community health and wellbeing?

Sport, and particularly community sport is widely recognised as providing a broad range of benefits at both an individual level and broader community level. There is strong evidence that sport delivers a range of benefits to the community including physical and mental health and wellbeing, economic, community, education and social benefits. Nationally, sport provides an estimated $83 billion in combined economic, health and educational benefits each year, with a return on investment of $7 to every dollar spent – Intergenerational Review of Australian Sport 2017, Boston Consulting Group (2017)

The most recent Ausplay data (July 2020-June 2021) shows that 81% of the population participated in physical activity for sport, exercise or recreation at least once per week, with 59% of respondents indicating that participation was in a sport related activity.  

Why is it then that sport has generally struggled to attract significant attention, and importantly, significant funding as part of the preventive health agenda?

The WA government Sustainable Health Review released in 2019 estimated that only 1.6 per cent of total health expenditure in WA is spent on prevention activities each year. This is significantly lower than comparable countries such as Canada (6.2 per cent of expenditure), the United Kingdom (5.3 per cent), Italy (4 per cent) and South Korea (4 per cent), and less than the OECD average (2.8 per cent).

The Panel who prepared the report recommended that WA must aim to increase its investment in public health, with expenditure on prevention activities rising to at least 5 per cent of total health expenditure by 2029.

Beyond the broad priority to provide stronger support to local government, local communities, not-for-profit organisations and schools to address key public health issues, including physical activity and nutrition, there is limited reference to the opportunity and role that sport can play in improving public health.

When the Australian Sport Commission became a portfolio within the Federal Health department around 2011, there was optimism that this may open the door for greater recognition of the contribution of sport to the preventive health agenda. Instead, Federal (and state) government funding for sport remains as not much more than a rounding error when compared to the respective Federal and State health budgets.

When we know that participation in sport contributes positively to health and wellbeing along with a range of other positive community outcomes (economic, social, education etc), why does sport struggle to attract a greater slice of the government funding pie?

  • Is it simply due to competing priorities and sport doesn’t sit high on the pecking order in its importance to government?
  • Is it due to the incorrect perception that all sport is big business and why should it be funded by the tax payer?
  • Is it due to the fact that governments have invested in major facilities and stadia and that sport has had its fair share, when we know that building a major stadium has limited flow on benefit to community sport?
  • Is it due to the fact that sport hasn’t been able to effectively demonstrate the Return on Investment that sport provides the community?

The answer isn’t simple and there isn’t a single solution – and while by no means an exhaustive list some suggested areas where sport is making progress and needs to continue to evolve are:

  • Continue to adapt its program offerings to accommodate participation for social and recreational forms of participation and not just traditional competition structures.
  • Continue to demonstrate the benefits of sport through quantifiable data and evidence, build case studies and share the good stories.
  • Strong advocacy to decision makers.
  • Adopt a partnership approach with community organisations to engage under represented groups within the community.
  • Partner with private / commercial program providers to broaden reach and scale program opportunities.

As shown by the allocation of funding, the current health model is based on treatment of people once they are sick or unwell. Increasing the focus on prevention and getting our community active will deliver a range of benefits beyond just positive health and wellbeing outcomes. It is important that we continue to beat the drum and highlight the role that sport can play in supporting the health and wellbeing of our community.

References

Ausplay data 2020-2021

https://www.clearinghouseforsport.gov.au/research/ausplay/results

WA Sustainable Health Review

https://ww2.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/Files/Corporate/general-documents/Sustainable-Health-Review/Final-report/sustainable-health-review-final-report.pdf

Intergenerational Review of Australian Sport 2017, Boston Consulting Group (2017)

https://www.sportaus.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/660395/Intergenerational_Review_of_Australian_Sport_2017.pdf