The COVID-19 pandemic forced mandatory border closures and stay at home orders in Australia which forced many football programs and competitions to abruptly pause and eventually be cancelled throughout 2020. The impact was far reaching across the community and professional level of sports across the country.
Football Australia in 2019 witnessed continued growth in grassroots football participation with over 543,000 players registering for outdoor organised football, and over 63,000 playing futsal. Total participation overall had reached a record 2 million participants.
However, the COVID-19 related disruption caused many organised football activities to pause and a continued safety concern for participants and families contributed to a 13% drop in outdoor players and 37% decrease in futsal players, due to the wide-ranging impacts that came with the pandemic during 2020 and in some part of Australia, continuing in 2021.
Strategies implemented to ensure participants were engaged:
Further to the outdoor football competition and futsal disruptions in 2020, many of the national community programs such as; MiniRoos Kick-Off and Sporting Schools had to remain agile and responsive due to the impacts of the pandemic, in which Football Australia was tasked with implementing strategies to ensure participants were continually being engaged in football activities during the required “stay at home” periods. Throughout this time, Football Australia utilised the time to pivot the delivery model for national level community programs. This allowed Football Australia to concentrate resourcing and capacity towards ensuring all community program participants were being digitally engaged through positive football activities during a challenging time for the community at large. Some examples of key initiatives implemented throughout the pandemic to maintain the connection between participants and football were:
- Maintaining physical literacy through digital and online football activities to be completed at home.
- Continued engagement of coaches, through course structure pivoting towards online delivery.
- Utilising the strength of social media promotion and the Australian national teams (Socceroos and Matilda’s), with participant skills challenges and content involving their favourite national team stars.
Coming out of the pandemic
In 2021, Australian society was preparing to live through the ‘new’ normal. Football Australia with the support of the nine (9) Member Federations and associations focused on ensuring participants were comfortable to ‘returning’ to play. This involved a return to pre-COVID activity, however, under COVID-19 safety protocols. This included the resourcing and education for club’s and participants on providing a safe and clean environment for participants. Whilst lockdowns would still be implemented nationally throughout the year, Football was returning, and participants were eager to return after a very challenge past 12 months.
At the conclusion of the 2021 season, Football Australia saw outdoor participation registrations exceed pre-pandemic levels with a 1% increase, as seen in the table below:
% Change from 2019
Data source: Football Australia National Participation Reports 2019-2021
The return to pre-COVID participation numbers shows that many football participants were not deterred by the pandemic and that football remained an important part of many Australians lives, and further highlighted the popularity of the sport in Australia
The ‘new’ normal:
As Football Australia is now at the mid-season point for Grassroots football in 2022, it is one of the most exciting periods for participants, due to Socceroos’ qualification to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022TM and then eight months later, the Commonwealth Bank Matildas participating in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023TM on Australian shores. .
Through the support that the FIFA World Cups brings including the collaboration with Governments at all levels, Football Australia continues to invest significantly in community grassroots football. The community department now has over 20 staff across the country operating over a breadth of participation, community programs and competitions, whilst a newly established club development unit has recently been implemented and will see strategic focus being channelled on club development and support in the lead up to the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023TM and building community club capacity for long-term sustainable success, and to be able to meet the demands of Football Australia’s growth strategy.
In addition to the above, two of Football Australia’s national community programs are witnessing sustained growth with the Federal Government funded Sporting Schools program now delivering over 1,800 football sessions in schools across Australia each term. At the same time the MiniRoos Kick-Off program has experienced an 18% increase in participation rates since the pandemic, forging the way for continued growth and future opportunities with the introductory program.
The new club development unit will be tasked with targeting having over 1,000 clubs on the digital platform by the end of 2023, with an emphasis on improving club environments for Women’s and Girls, translating in a 10% participation rate increase for females. This aligns with Football Australia’s vision for a 50/50 gender balance in participation by 2027.
Finally, Football Australia celebrates the continued commitment and delivery of community football in collaboration with its nine (9) Member Federations being; Football West, Football Northern Territory, Football South Australia, Football Queensland, Northern NSW Football, Football NSW, Capital Football, Football Victoria and Football Tasmania. In addition to the above, all the hard work and dedication of community football by all the associations throughout Australia.