September 7, 2018


Pay to play: is participating in sport becoming too expensive for everyday Australians?

Michelle Cull, Western Sydney University and Keith Parry, Western Sydney University

Australians spend nearly A$11 billion a year on sport and physical activity participation fees, according to the Australian Sports Commission.

Not surprisingly, many people believe these costs are becoming far too expensive. Retired football player and SBS sports analyst Craig Foster recently criticised the rising registration fees for football clubs across the country. He argued that elite-level sport leagues should increase their funding for grassroots participation.

Others agree that more needs to be done to reduce cost barriers and increase participation. Some experts are warning of a “growing grassroots divide between families able to afford junior sport” and those who cannot.

Read more:
Our ‘sporting nation’ is a myth, so how do we get youngsters back on the field?

Our own newly conducted research shows the impact sports participation fees are having on families in one state – New South Wales. In our survey of 696 people, we found respondents were paying over A$1,100 on average to play a sport each season. On top of this, they were spending A$450 on transport, bringing the total sport participation cost to around A$1,500 per person per season.

Sixty-five percent of respondents reported that these costs had risen in the past year. As one participant noted:

A paradox seems evident: as a nation we are encouraged to be involved in sport. However, for some families, the cost of such involvement is prohibitive.

Breakdown of costs

Data from our study indicate that participation costs are rising across the board in a variety of sports.

The biggest expense for respondents in our survey was registration fees levied by sporting organisations. This amounted to A$225 a year on average. But many people reported additional costs on things like equipment (required to play many sports), coaching and lessons, and uniforms and footwear. Each of these categories cost participants over A$200 a year on average.

Current costs (including registration, club/facility fees, coaching and equipment) for the top 16 organised sports in NSW are shown in the following table:

Some NSW respondents believed junior clubs might have increased their fees after the government introduced its Active Kids program earlier this year. This allows families to apply for a A$100 voucher each year to offset sports fees for their children.

But other respondents said costs have been rising for years and government subsidies aren’t trickling down to many families or local sport clubs:

In rural/regional areas, facilities are poor to average. Local councils do not have the funds to adequately improve and refurbish existing facilities. In my area, new sporting facilities are too expensive for the local council to construct without major grants assistance. My local cricket club is relatively strong and well supported. However, at least one of the local clubs will fold due to the ever-increasing costs.

Cost as a barrier to sports participation

The impact of rising participation costs is being felt in a number of ways.

Our study showed that around 10% of respondents had borrowed money (not including credit cards) to participate in sports at an average of A$5,000 per person. Thirty-five percent of respondents also reported greater credit card debt due to sport fees.

Worryingly, participation costs were also found to be a major barrier for many children wanting to play sport. As one respondent told us:

We have two sons. Only the eldest gets to play sport because of the cost. There was absolutely no way we could find A$1,000 for rego two weeks after Xmas. The youngest just misses out. Totally unfair, but the fiscal reality. We have a mortgage to pay.

Nationally, sport participation rates increased slightly for school-aged children (15 years and under) outside school, from 20% in 2016 to 25% in 2017, according to AusPlay data released by the Australian Sports Commission.

But, again, income levels were a major factor when it came to participation rates. According to the AusPlay data, high-income families are far more likely to have children in sport programs (84%) compared to low-income families (58%).

AusPlay data also showed a slight decrease of 4% in adult participation in the 16 main organised sports across Australia from 2016-17.

More government funding needed

As has been argued many times before, investment in elite sport does not always drive grassroots participation.

Yet government funding is still being funnelled into major sport infrastructure projects at a disproportionate rate compared to grassroots funding.

Although the NSW government has backed down from its widely criticised plans to spend A$2 billion on a small number of elite stadiums, the revised budget only knocked A$500 million off the total cost.

Our survey respondents highlighted the cost to hire grounds as a contributing factor in increasing registration costs. On the positive side, the latest NSW budget includes an extra A$130 million in funding for Active Kids vouchers, along with A$100 million for regional sport infrastructure and A$100 million for facilities in greater Sydney. However, this funding seems insignificant when compared with the A$1.5 billion allocated to the major stadium development projects.

Read more:
Sydney’s stadiums debate shows sport might not be the political winner it once was

Rather than increasing funding for elite sport, governments should invest more in subsidies to make sport participation more affordable. Rebates for children are a good start, but more subsidies are needed, particularly discounts or vouchers for larger families, those playing multiple sports and lower-income families. This will ensure that access to sport does not become a privilege reserved for the social elite and is open and accessible to all.The Conversation

Michelle Cull, Senior Lecturer in Accounting and Financial Planning, Western Sydney University and Keith Parry, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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  • Sports fees are way too high and then you have the extra costs of transportation and if you have more than one child trying to be in two different places at the same time. Unless the fees come down, more and more children will miss out on a great way of life


  • It is expensive, there is a Govt initiative to encourage school-aged kids to participate – I think it’s a $150 rebate in NSW


  • I think everything just goes up in price, its like a domino effect… which sucks for the new generations, how are parents suppose to afford for extra curriculum activities specially when the child wants to do it so badly!


  • Further to my earlier comment even school sports is getting quite expensive at some schools. At some they have different colour tops for each “house team”. If you are put in a different “team” you then have to buy a different colour top. Some schools have their school logos on them so you can’t just buy one the same colour from Target, KMart or a similar store. In hot or wet weather your child may need more than one top too. At some schools they were their sports uniform for the whole day and have sports more than one day a week.


  • I’ve found it is too expensive to play a lot of games. My boys used to love playing sports but now they can’t afford to play a lot of them.


  • Absolutely. Whilst we can afford to pay the exorbitant registration and insurance costs which are necessary but don’t necessarily provide any value (eg. insurance claims), we do know of many kids who have had to walk away from football as their parents won’t pay. It’s a real shame. Sport should be affordable for everyone.


  • This is so true, why is it so expensive but they want you to participate.


  • I have found the most expensive component is insurance. Everything went up astronomically after 7/11. So unfair. It is becoming that only the rich can join these organizations. No wonder children are now obese when all they can afford is to play on their phones.


  • Its definitely too expensive. Kids should be able to get swimming lessons and pick one sport and have them both fully funded. It would make everyone a lot healthier.


  • We pay thousands per year for our kids sports. It is expensive but it’s worth it for their healthy, social skills etc.


  • I agree that rather than increasing funding for elite sport, governments should invest more in subsidies to make sport participation more affordable. It’s not affordable for us now.

    • Indeed – it needs to be spread across the community and different levels.


  • Sport should be encouraged and should be affordable.


  • It is a shame that kids miss out as it has become unaffordable for some. Could the schools step in to help?


  • Seems the major costs are to cover children, coaches, volunteers etc. involved in the sport so that no one gets sued. Such a pity that every one makes money out of this and the kids are the last in line to get any benefit.


  • Do sports clubs, associations etc. have to pay public liability insurance at all? Do they pay insurance that covers volunteers in the event of injury etc.? I know that this defintely applies to some sports.


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