No Time to Play?

No Time to Play Graphic

The turnaround strategies that a number of our traditional sports have developed to solve declining club participation problems share a common theme – that we are a ‘Time Poor Society’.

We spectacularly failed to achieve the bold promise made by John Maynard Keynes in 1930 that ‘by the end of that century we would all be working around three hours per day, and only then because we choose to’. In the words of my favourite spy Agent 86, we ‘missed it by that much’. Australians complain that their recreation time is decreasing and multiple surveys report that Australians feel pressured for time in the course of their daily lives.

Nonetheless, international research indicates that on average, people in developed countries have more time available to invest in non-work activities than they ever have before, and this has been increasing since the 1960’s. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Labour Force Data suggests that, despite steadily increasing from the 1970’s, time spent on work peaked in 2000 but has been on decline ever since.

Irrespective of whether we have more or less of it, we are besieged with different ways in which to spend our leisure cache. The most comprehensive time series data most commonly quoted was prepared by the ABS and published in 2008. It compares data from 1992, 1997 and 2006.  While there have been minor changes in time allocations over that time, the amount of time spent on recreation and leisure dropped by 35% whereas the time spent on audio-visual entertainment increased by 29% during the study period. While time spent on domestic and family commitments have remained steady, time spent on personal care (including sleeping, eating and drinking) has also increased.  Of significance was that this study was undertaken before the social media phenomenon, but demonstrates that a re-allocation of free time away from traditional sport and leisure activities was well underway even before Facebook took hold.

According to a Nielson report commissioned in January 2015, there are now 13 million Australians active on Facebook each month.  According to a Sensis report completed in May 2015, the average time that those 13 million Australians spend on Facebook alone each week is 8.5 hours. These are remarkable figures and perhaps social media now provides a more convenient and more enjoyable vehicle for social interaction than traditional sport and leisure activities for entire generations of Australians?

So, all of the data that we have available paints a complex picture and the Australian Sports Commission has been looking into this issue.  Their research confirms the shift in how we choose to invest our discretionary time. The membership base of our sporting clubs has been a major casualty of a society with seemingly limitless options.  With research showing that busy workers are most likely to participate in sport and physical recreation, perhaps the problem is less about the quantum of time that we have available to spend but more about the value proposition that we attribute to that spend.

No Time to Play Infographic

So why do we play sport at all? After all, there is nothing intrinsically worthwhile about repeatedly chasing a ball or a person (or both) around.  And yet, most of us love doing this in some form or another and on a regular basis.

The Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin put forward the premise that all animals participate in play to some degree, not just as a means of learning skills for life but also simply for pleasure. Extending one’s physical capabilities to their fullest potential is exhilarating, and this is made even more acute when done whilst co-operating and communicating with others. Most of the human race takes intense enjoyment from playing, laughing and competing with our peers, our friends (and sometimes our enemies) and members of the opposite sex.  Of course sport has so much more to offer and there is a mountain of research that show its undeniable individual, social and community virtues.

Therefore sport should continue to have value and there is no doubt that providing more convenient and appropriate formats should be an important part of any reinvigoration strategy for sporting organisations. However, a focus on time as a panacea is dangerous if one fails to address the social needs and the desire of participants to have fun playing together. Some simple arithmetic will show that less time interacting needs to be balanced by more highly engaged participants to make the business case complete.

The construct of new sporting solutions should allow us to gain a spectrum of our needs in one convenient parcel – be they social interaction, exercise, relaxation, competition, achievement, mastery, but most of all fun. Let’s face it, there are 13 million Australians who we know have recently found an average of 8.5 hours per week to invest in social media. Most sports need only to get their claws into a fraction of this time.

Indeed social media may in fact be part of the solution for sporting bodies. Australia has the second highest social media use on the planet and social media interest in key sporting events has shown spectacular growth. It has been suggested that people post on social media partly to express their “true selves” and the phenomenon of posting at sporting events creates an association with the sport and the values of that sport. Connected spectators then receive instantaneous verification on their phone that confirms how cool they are. What a promoter’s dream!

A friend recently recounted an experience he had while scoring for his son at school cricket. At some point he turned around to speak to another parent, only to find everybody had gone AWOL. What he discovered later was that the spectators had been keeping track of the first XI game on their Twitter feed, and it was turning into a cliff-hanger. His fair-weather friends had all headed over to the main oval to participate in what turned into a cracking game decided on the very last ball. When they returned they were excited and engaged and their enthusiasm was infectious, something a scorer sorely needs by the end of a hot day.

Those spectators could have conveniently stayed in their seats to watch the game unfold on their phones.  Instead they chose to participate directly in the real thing whilst at the same time remaining active online and posting their own blow-by-blow accounts on Twitter.   The reach of that first XI game was no longer confined to a few parents crowded around a suburban sportsground, it was effectively limitless.   The Economist predicts that by 2020, 80% of people on the planet will be connected via their smartphone, in real time and in ways that we have not even imagined as yet.

The connections and conduits that social media has created offers national sporting bodies the best chance to reconnect and reinvigorate their sports and their clubs. To achieve this, they will need to challenge entrenched ideology intent of rebranding existing programs and protecting historic doctrines. The easiest and most tempting fix to redress dwindling sporting club membership numbers will be to simply develop shorter formats designed to match our “time poor” society. This kind of myopic plug-in solution supported only by outdated methods of engagement may bring about some short term success, but it will not be sustainable.

Indeed, sporting bodies at all levels must recalibrate themselves and think less about their crafts and more about being contemporary social networks – which I suppose is where they all started in the first place.


Do Don’t
Realise that people play sport for a variety of reasons. Think it is all about competition (given that this rates as the least important motivator for regular sporting participation)
Integrate social media as an integral part of the sporting experience and have a properly resourced social media strategy that stretches over a number of years. Think that social media is a solution in itself and expect results after a couple of Facebook posts.
Encourage diversity and the representation of emerging generations as decision makers in sporting bodies and organisations. Leave the baby-boomers in charge for too much longer.
Encourage diversity and those who can contribute a range of opinions and ideas. Listen only to those with the loudest voices.
Look at shorter formats and make sure that they are principally about fun and social engagement. Expect that simply designing shorter versions of existing struggling programs will bring in a flood of new participants.
Invest in programs that will engage with entirely new generations of participants. Focus exclusively on the demands of current club members.
Diligently remove as many barriers to participation and engagement as possible. Think that everyone feels the need to adhere to strict or outdated rules, regulations and membership models.
Survey, Refine & Adjust, then Survey, Refine & Adjust again, then…….. Stop continuously evolving and adapting to technological and generational changes and perceptions.


About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. Very thoughtful and well informed article Robbo – I’d be interested to know your background and whether you are employed in the sporting industry.

    I worked for about 7 years as a sports development officer across 2 sports; Touch football (a fast food sport that is well adapted to the 21st century) and then more briefly at lawn bowls which some might assume is the polar opposite.

    At bowls it was a bit like turning around the Titanic and at times very difficult to navigate the bureaucracy to get enough support to actually implement the very valid kind of recommendations you make Robbo. But they have done very well over the past 10 years.

    Ideally sports can set up to offer formats to suit newbies, the social player, the time poor, the traditional hardcore and the elite. Interestingly at Touch the NRL had long regarded us as the enemy. A couple years ago the NRL ‘bought out’ Touch which was a win-win; finally Touch had some dough and access to the NRL’s resources whilst rugby league could lay claim to a database of a million participants which is like gold.

    It’s a treacherous path between the risk-reward of being seen to bastardise a sport and being a realist with an eye on present and future social trends and realities.

    Btw, if anyone knows where I can find a game of speed-golf (< 3 hours), please let me know!

  2. Thanks Jeff,
    Apart from being a sports lover, I have been a director on a state sporting body for he past 5 years and a rep on the national body. In addition, I am a founding director/investor in a private sporting facility in Brisbane. My other background is IT and then property/construction as well as investments in a retail chain.

    I prefer to refer to as ‘Jack of All Trades – Master of None!).

    Part of the reason for putting my thoughts down is to do my bit and influence the decision makers to take a fresh look and reengage. The time poor component is undeniably a relevant factor, but I would be concerned if this became the focal point of investment.

    The bowls part is really interesting and the fact that participation rates are rising (particularly in the under 40 age group) whilst traditional club membership levels continue to erode. I also appreciate that there is a great deal of tension between the social and competition bowlers. Interesting that the average of of the national men’s team was 34 and women’s at 27 when I last looked – and some of these are reported to have become interested via a social bowling experience. And even more vexing is that in many ways, the social/barefoot bowls movement was born out of financial necessity and club failures.

    I agree that there needs to be a range of options but having competitions as the only reason for being will not necessarily deliver the boon that club memberships are looking for when competition ranks as the lowest of all motivators for regular participation in sports or active recreation.

    Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to provide feedback.

  3. No worries Robbo, I could tell you’d been part of the system.

    I guess I’m also a jack of all trades – which is the lot of SDO’s. I wish I was still in the game but the pay was terrible (an issue across most SSA’s is high SDO turnover which stifles progression and continuity).

    Yes, the smart bowling clubs realised social bowls could be a gateway to growing membership, as well as attracting the kind of skills and contacts the Gen X-Y workers can offer. They also open the way for juniors if they’re encouraged to get their kids involved. Maybe not immediately but down the track these bowlers often become full pennant playing members and the youngsters become guns very quickly (which causes friction too).

    That said, as competitive as bowls can be many participants are 90% in it for primarily for the social aspect.

  4. Hi Robbo

    Really interesting to read your article. I’m not at all a pro in this area, but am very interested in it.

    Firstly …8.5 hours average time spent on social media. That seems enormous. Yet when you think in the decades prior to smart phones and social media, people could well have spent a similar amount of time on a landline, be it social or work related. In decades before that, people probably chatted over the back fence, in the general store, over the kitchen table and generally, those in the immediate neighbourhood.

    So, my guess would be that time spent communicating on social media now, is possibly not vastly different in terms of time, yet it is vastly different, perhaps??, in its reach. …then again, the ‘local gossip’, was also perhaps an early form of social media, a way of spreading the news. As humans, we love news, we love to know what’s going on in the world around us. He or she had a role that is still evident today.

    Re social media and sporting clubs….so much potential here to reinvigorate flailing clubs to boost/encourage memberships for clubs that have slipped from view…which many suburban clubs have, especially those that don’t reach to the popular sports. I was talking to someone today, who remembers having to wait their turn for a hit at the local tennis club as a kid in the 70’s and 80’s. Today, you could walk into many local tennis clubs for a hit and not have to wait your turn. And tennis is one sport that has surely suffered as the promotion of AFL thru avenues such as Auskick. Hence few champions in recent times.

    But to reinvigorate clubs that are seeing less interest, that are competing with people’s work and family commitments is a challenge. One irony I see, is the surge in junior sport that can leave parents struggling with work and family stuff during the week, then on weekends are flat out driving them from one sporting event to another, leaving very little time for any sort of leisure. So we keep our kids active sometimes at our own physical expense, as the amount of driving required can be huge in some sporting sectors. I know this is not the norm for everyone, but certainly it is within many demographics of our big cities.

    My theory is that social media itself is not a problem. I see it as a useful and socially, connective tool. I don’t think it takes away from sporting clubs. The one thing I do see as a major detractor is in fact television. To me, it would be the biggest single factor in recent decades that would have contributed to a general downturn in local community sporting involvement.

    When you consider the interest our community has in who is about to be evicted, who has not lost weight, who has not gained a husband or who has won a cooking bake-off, then one can only assume many, many hours have been spent sitting on a couch.

    In which case we really do have time to play. And we should.

  5. Hi Kate,
    Thanks for taking the time to post your comments. The time issue is pretty complicated however, I was struck by the data and felt it worth pointing out some of the anomalies I encountered. I am also a bit weary of the ‘time poor society’ excuse. I totally agree that social media is a massive opportunity for sport however, the rise in AV consumption has been massive as you point out.
    Auskick has been an incredible program however, it is interesting you point to Tennis – which is an area I have some involvement. Hot Shots is delivered to around 300,000 kids each year and the program has been a massive success. Turning exposure into a life habit is the future challenge and Tennis Australia will be announcing some exciting and innovative initiatives this summer. Developing viable pathways that can take that small girl right through to competing in the over 80’s women’s singles (yes there is one) is the challenge. Using social media is very much a part of this initiative.

    I have a number of other articles in the pipeline that cover some of your comments above – so i hope you find these interesting.

  6. G’day Robbo, what do i say, where do i start ? Maybe by saying JMK was totally wrong but he wasn’t Pat Malone. I recall being at University in the early 80′ s and one of our lecturers did lots of writing and research on how the changes in technology would mean increased leisure time for us. On that he was wrong but he was insightful enough to consider new technology could play a role in entertainment; on that point he was on to something.

    The changes in the nature of work must impact upon how we spend our leisure time. Though it seems the weekly hours we work have decreased over the last decade, ABS statistics indicated full time workers were working longer hours, circa 43.2 hours per week, the 9th longest in the OECD. This combined with a large amount of people with precarious employment, contract or casual,, making it hard to arrange their life to fit in leisure activities needs consideration.. We have the second highest amount of casual workers in the OECD. Not good. All this impacts on our work life balance.

    I often look back at the seminal work of Guy Debord to help me conceptualise aspects of our contemporary world. When he speaks about us no longer living or being, but having, there is a resonance. Sport is now more so a commodity to be brought and sold, as we bacome even more enamoured in this commodity fetishsim, but sport should be more. It should be a pivotal role in our lives bringing people together, breaking down our isolation, making us healthier., physically and mentally.

    At my advanced age i still spend five days a week in the gymnasium. Getting older my training regime has changed but i still like to train , to maintain my health. Ii no longer participate in sporting contests, though the cheese’n’kisses has got me to attend barefoot bowling of late. Working in community health one great joy i get is seeing our Reclink team, the co-health Kangaroos participate in the footy and cricket. These participants, who suffer a range of challenges, including but not limited to mental health issues, intellectual disabilities and substance abuse problems get together, in a supportive environment benefitting their health and well being .

    There you go, that’s my two bobs worth.


  7. Thanks for the considered comment Glen. I agree that the data is very confusing. One other piece of data I found interesting is that people who work between 41 and 48 hours per week and those who have more than a 1 hour daily commute have the highest participation rates in regular sport and physical exercise – and you would think that these people had the least time.

    I suppose I started writing this because i don’t believe that simply developing shorter formats is the silver bullet to arrest declining participation and club membership. Convenience (both time and facilities) is important but getting the social engagement piece right is essential in my opinion.


  8. Ta Robbo, interesting and valid point re those participation rate.

    Like you i don’t see shorter time frames as a panacea. My interest is more about the ongoing commodification of all aspects of our lives. Everything has a use value and an exchange value, with the sole nexus of our lives being reduced to cash exchange. Sure sport has always had a commercial aspect to it, that’s life, but now it seems the primary, nay only purpose of sport is as a commodity. Sport should be about participation and engagement , being of benefit to the health of the participant(s),

    Where to from here re people being actively involved in sport at all its various levels, i dunno. How do we envisage a setting where we are living/being not having? As Julius Sumner-Miller would say; that is the question ?


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