Tony Elletson believes South Australia’s Limestone Coast could be the best regional area in Australia for producing elite athletes.
Through the Limestone Coast Sports Academy, he trains area youth to compete in their sport alongside the best in the state and the nation.
But he knows that local grassroots sport is the launching pad for everyone from AFL stars to Olympic competitors.
“We looked at areas like Ballarat and Wagga Wagga, they have a great history of producing Australian competitors, be it cricket, footy or whatever,” he said.
“The key to being successful at a higher level is making sure you have a strong base.”
Like many regional areas in Australia, local sport has taken a hit as people lead busier lives and the number of players and volunteers declines, with a study last year finding volunteering hours have dropped. 19 percent of the country.
A sports academy in the state’s southeast is set to launch a $300,000 study into local sports to find the best ways to promote top athletes.
Mr Elletson said finding ways to strengthen the sport at grassroots level was vital to the future of local athletes.
“I think before COVID we were probably struggling with 14 to 20-year-olds, where they leave school, start looking for work and go to Adelaide for university,” he said.
“There are so many other things that can take up people’s time these days, so we need to make sure we support local clubs and associations as best we can.
“They’re all doing a fantastic job, it’s just the manpower (they need), you can only do so much.”
Diversification of the local sports club
Sport SA CEO Leah Cassidy said it was important to involve more diverse communities, such as migrants, women and LGBTQI+ people, who were often unwelcome at sports clubs.
“When we think about how we run our sport, we know that there is a heavy weight of men on sports committees,” he said.
“When you start diversifying your board and your committees … it changes what the club looks like.
“This is the point at which clubs are, they have to decide whether they are going to stay the same or diversify.”
Ms Cassidy added that regional sports clubs had the opportunity to create stronger communities by embracing diversity.
“Sports is often at the heart of what’s going on in communities and it’s really important to get these different groups involved,” he said.
Inclusive sport is developing
While traditionally more popular sports such as Australian Rules, netball, football and cricket have led to a decline in player numbers, more niche sports have developed.
With sports from around the world now available to stream directly into living rooms, people now have more options to occupy their time.
Disc golf, which first originated in the 1960s, has grown in popularity as the internet has made it more accessible to more people.
Ryan Nicholson started the first disc golf club in Mount Gambier, which led to the town hosting national championships.
He said the inclusivity of the sport made it attractive.
“We are very passionate about our sport and we share our sport with everyone, so we are not going to turn anyone away,” Mr Nicholson said.
“It’s one of those sports that anyone can play, if you can shoot the puck and walk around the park, you’re far away.”
The sport’s newfound popularity was shown in one local disc golfer who joined the Limestone Coast Sports Academy to reach the highest level.
Mr Elletson said it was exciting to see new sports making a mark locally, even though bigger sports could be on the decline.
“Not everyone is good at football, cricket or netball, so there were people who walked away from the sport for a long time and chose different lifestyles,” she said.