Why volunteers are the lifeblood of our game

Playing soccer

Taking place between Monday May 17 and Sunday May 23, National Volunteer Week (NVW) is Australia’s largest annual celebration of volunteers. NVW recognises the significant contributions of over six million of them throughout the country, with over 600 million hours reportedly spent helping others each year.

Since 2014, Australia has seen a 20 per cent decline in the number of hours volunteers give – during COVID-19, two-thirds of volunteers stopped working. In this modern era of uncertainty where time is as important a commodity as it’s ever been, collaboration should be a priority amongst Australians. Particularly in how we adapt to the lives of volunteers and engage volunteers to continue their incredible output and contributions.

The last few years has seen Australia as a nation dealing with drought, devastating bushfires, floods and a global pandemic. Whilst many of us stayed home during the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers dedicated their efforts to delivering essential services, organising food packages and providing care, comfort and plenty more in support of Australians. Through crisis Australia persevered and this resilience was built off of the collective strength exhibited by our nation’s volunteers.

Many people in the last year saw their mental health take a significant hit, particularly in a year where isolation and loneliness were forced upon us, adding to financial stress, anxiety and fear. Volunteering can be a tool which facilitates not just a reconnection with others, but a reengagement with the world around us and the community spirit that drives our local competitions that are the building blocks for many of our sporting and social aspirations.

Those interested in contributing to football off the park would have benefitted by the experience of contributing to a local grassroots club where the reward is ensuring the game that we love is played week in, week out.

Truthfully, university students are best placed to gain authentic experience in a grassroots football environment, with roles on offer across the board in media, health, finance, legal and coaching capacities among many others. The manner in which obstacles are overcome in grassroots football is like nowhere else, and it is a substantial learning curve for those willing to give their time to the game.

In honour of NVW, Football Victoria, Football Queensland and Football NSW have all published articles this week which aim to put a spotlight on the tireless work of individual volunteers across clubs in their respective states. Each story reflects the positive impact of volunteers for Australian football – from Jasmine Hirst’s contributions towards growing the game for women and girls as Vice President of Darebin Falcons Women’s Sports Club, to Buderim Wanderers’ Brigitte DeCourcy being named as the April recipient of the Volunteer of the Month Award for her efforts that date as far back as the 1980s.

These stories stir a myriad of memories that one will undeniably have from playing football in their youth, whilst ensuring a newfound appreciation for the volunteers we’d encounter growing up who put their heart and soul into the clubs they loved.

Youth football

Football has seen a downturn of volunteers in the last year, with Football Queensland’s Chief Executive Officer Robert Cavallucci noting last month that “research by Volunteering Australia suggests that an estimated two in three volunteers stepped away from their roles in 2020 due in part to COVID-19 restrictions.” Obviously, this is wholeheartedly understandable, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its far-reaching effects across Australian football.

Volunteers are an essential part of the Australian football family, with contributions being made to the everyday running of clubs and organisations right across the country at grassroots, semi-professional and professional levels of the sport. Campaigns such as Football Queensland’s Good2GiveBack initiative demonstrate a push towards recognition and respect of volunteers, those of whom were the reason why we have the memories of weekend football that we all do.

Saturday and Sunday league football harkens back to memories of being driven to games by your parents. Of sharing the responsibility of washing the team’s jerseys between each player. Of your parents – some louder than others – issuing you on through a haze of discombobulated moments of play and opportunities to win the second, third, fourth and fifth ball that deflected in between you, your teammates and the opposition.

And it was often these same parents who took on the role of coach, team manager, trainer, barbecue wrangler (or accompanying jostler) and canteen attendant. Volunteering and initiative are intrinsically tied in with the idea of community. The building of collaborative spirit, through a dedication to assuring one’s love for the game is fostered in the same way for their kids, is pivotal to developing the next generation of Australian footballers.

Scraping through: What the APL can improve ahead of the next Unite Round

A-Leagues Unite Round 2024

The first iteration of Unite Round has not gone by without criticism, but the product itself may well have saved the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) from a complete disaster.

With high-scoring thrillers, player milestones, and little controversy, A League football delivered when it really needed to, and it should give the APL plenty of marketable content for future editions of the round.

In addition, match-going fans performed admirably to help create atmosphere within the grounds.

This includes valiant efforts from interstate fans, particularly Adelaide United and Brisbane Roar, and not least those from the Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory.

These fans were treated to some rip-roaring football, but there simply was not enough of them, with data analysis reporting a total attendance rate to be 47,425 across 12 games; an average of 3,952 per match.

Attendances continue to be the major talking point for fans and critics of the A League, but a simple fixturing change to the round could make the difference next time.

Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory fans had their women’s sides play at Leichhardt Oval on Friday night, before having to wait until Sunday night for their men’s match.

Given the distances fans from both sides have to travel, situating their games as bookends was far from accommodating and recorded a combined attendance of under 5,000 across the club’s three games.

The reverse of this occurred to Western Sydney Wanderers and Melbourne City, with the men’s match taking centre stage on Friday night, whilst the women’s encounter took place at 5:00PM on a Sunday.

While some Wanderers fans did turn out in the grandstand for their women’s team, the RBB was nowhere to be seen and contributed to the low crowd of 1,515.

Finally, there was a same-day clash for Adelaide United fans, who had to make an incredibly tight public transport connection between Leichhardt Oval and Allianz Stadium, or fork out money for a taxi/uber fare between grounds.

It led to many Reds’ fans either leaving their women’s team early, or arriving late to their men’s encounter.

A mirroring of the men’s and women’s league fixtures could have alleviated some of the pressures on attendances, and delivered a more economical and logistically sound solution for fans.

In addition, the APL would be allowing clubs to do its own Unite Round marketing for them, by encouraging their fans to attend both their men’s and women’s fixtures.

We could have seen popular active supports’ such as the RBB, The Cove, The Red Army and The North End, supporting their men’s and women’s teams throughout one night.

Instead, we had disjointed looking crowds at the men’s double-headers, with women’s double-headers left hung out to dry in Leichhardt.

Furthermore, the APL’s decision to pair its newest clubs Western United and Macarthur FC to play at 5PM on a Friday only accentuated doubts over its fan base growth.

The logic may have been to capture match-going fans of Wanderers and City, but it simply did not work, recording an attendance of just under 3,500, with many fans not arriving until the conclusion of what turned out to be a thrilling encounter.

Again, the APL could look at scheduling games between clubs with smaller fan bases, as well as clubs with the greatest amount of travel, Perth and Wellington, to take place at smaller venues that will enable a greater atmosphere.

Twelve games across three venues makes sense, but the scheduling did not. Thankfully, this should be an easier fix for the APL if Unite Round returns next season.

Most disappointing from the perspective of match-going fans, though, was a lack of entertainment at the grounds.

Whilst in-stadium DJ’s and compares did their best to engage the crowd in-between games, there was very little activities on offer with no food vans or sideshows present.

Regardless, with grassroots participation in football so strong the APL cannot let up in finding solutions to entice juniors and their families to A-League matches.

Player and fan interaction could be the place to start, evidenced by the frenzied post-game atmosphere involving Wanderers and Adelaide United fans, who stayed well after the final whistle to meet the players, take selfies and sign shirts.

Could the APL have created exclusive areas, similar to those at the Melbourne F1 Grand Prix, for fans to meet players across the weekend?

There is also the potential to replicate what AFL sides did during Gather Round by conducting open training sessions the day before their matches begin, so that fans can again interact with their clubs.

Even further afar, Major League Soccer continually provides examples of how to engage fans into football whilst battling several high-profile codes.

Offering free merchandise to fans outside the ground such as scarves, hats, banners or even t-shirts are a fixture of the MLS fan experience, whilst brand partners of clubs and the league itself immerse their names and products around stadiums.

To the latter point, sponsor involvement has been so successful that a 2022 survey revealed 73% of MLS fans would try the products of brands associated with their MLS club.

Connecting league and club sponsors, especially during a landmark event like Unite Round, should be pivotal to its success. Of course, the APL will need its representative clubs to pull their weight by getting their sponsors on board.

Finally, in relation to off-field entertainment, the APL cooled some doubts about the round clashing with the Socceroos Asian Cup opener against India, announcing it would provide a fanvzone outside the stadium for spectators to watch the match.

However, fans leaving the Allianz Stadium were led on a merry dance around Moore Park, as the big screens in the designated fan zone failed with very little explanation.

A pub in the entertainment quarter graciously re-opened its doors to show the match on its two big screens, but many fans had already called it a night, leaving them disgruntled despite a terrific night of A-League football.

Indeed, situations like this re-ignite lingering resentment towards the APL, particularly from clubs outside New South Wales, who still hold the organisation accountable for its now-reversed decision to move grand finals exclusively to Sydney.

The reversal gave birth to the Unite Round, and it is likely that many fans chose not to support the initiative because of its connection to the APL’s initial decision.

Meanwhile, reports of financial turmoil within the organisation are being attributed to its redundancy measures, which will see its digital content arm KeepUp effectively removed.

This turmoil could explain the APL’s hasty approach towards its organisation of the round, as well as its conservative approach to its marketing and promotion.

Responding to the redundancies, an APL statement released on Tuesday offers reassurance for stakeholders, clubs, and fans.

“With the original three-year strategy coming to an end, a planned full strategic and commercial review has taken place over the last several months,” it read.

“The review has identified significant opportunities to create efficiencies through consolidation and this necessitates an organisational restructure that is now underway.

“APL’s priorities remain the same – to deliver commercial growth and sustainability by creating the most exciting competitions possible for our fans – with strong teams producing great young players across Australia and New Zealand.”

If the APL stays committed to these priorities, we will hopefully be treated to a more successful edition of Unite Round, and more importantly, a football experience befitting of what is being delivered on the field.

Football Queensland gearing up for 2024 season with State Referee Conference

Football Queensland 2023 State Referee Conference

Football Queensland’s 2024 State Referee Conference will be held Saturday, January 20 and Sunday, January 21.

The conference will be available in a hybrid format as it was in 2023, with attendees able to join the in-person event at St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace or access the sessions from regional hubs in an online platform.

The State Referee Conference is an annual get-together before the upcoming season as Queensland-based referees learn from special guest speakers, get to know their peers and build relationships with fellow match officials.

The two-day format of the conference will first be open to all referees on day one, before more in-depth practical sessions on the second day exploring specific referee concepts for NPL Queensland, FQPL and FQ Referee Academy match officials.

At the time of confirmed conference dates, Football Queensland CEO Robert Cavallucci expressed why the State Referee Conference is an essential part of the football calendar.

“The annual State Referee Conference provides an important opportunity for Queensland referees to come together ahead of the new season to learn from special guest speakers, get to know their peers and build relationships with fellow match officials,” Cavallucci said in a statement.

“After the success of the hybrid event format in 2023, we’re excited to again deliver the 2024 State Referee Conference both in person and online, accommodating match officials at every level of the game from every region.

“Metro based referees are encouraged to register early to attend the in-person event at St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace with only 250 spaces available, while FQ will also host in-person events in regional parts of the state for referees located across Queensland.”

Register here to attend the in-person event at St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace.

Register here to view the conference online from a regional hub or from home.

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