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The Matildas extolled, Diamonds ignored … but ice hockey? Grassroots funding the goal

by Sandi Logan | Sep 2, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Australians are still rejoicing in the Matildas’ heroic FIFA World Cup run, with the PM coughing up an extra $200 million just for good measure. But the big money is in small places. Enter the NHL, as some of the world’s top pro ice hockey players prepare to fly in for the multi-billion dollar National Hockey League’s first-ever Global Series MelbourneSandi Logan reports.

Soccer (or football for the purists) is Australia’s most popular sport by participation: 1.2m players are formally registered in grassroots through to professional leagues. So it makes sense that at the conclusion of the Matildas’ last game, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would dig into his government’s healthy surplus to find $200m for women’s sport.

It’s sounds like a lot, but compared to the money thrown around in European football circles, it is a mere trifle. Manchester United is currently up for sale for around $6b. That’s about twice the value of the NHL’s most valuable team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. On average, each NHL team is worth $1.5b. But why spend their riches in Australia?

No one’s quite sure how the PMs $200m on soccer will be spent, either, although he said “this is about seizing that opportunity for the next generation, investing in community sporting facilities for women and girls around Australia (because) sport is a great unifier … it brings communities together.”

Latest statistics show federal government funding of sport has dropped markedly over the past five years, while early in the 21st century, most support was in fact provided by local government (almost $1b) for venues, grounds and facilities.

The Commonwealth’s Sport 2030 Masterplan will appeal to the Australia’s top sports (by participation) including golf (742,231), Aussie Rules (699,940) tennis (648,210), netball (645,261), basketball (588,720), cricket (506,947), swimming (379,671), touch football (277,856) and running/athletics (256,639), but the overall target of most government funding focuses on elite athletes and teams who represent a small percentage of the more than 16m Australians participating in sport each year.

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Australian netball is in crisis for just this reason: millions spent on Super Netball competing in half-filled stadiums, a national team crowned world champions, but a sport ignored by television and set to lose $7.5m in the next three years with little benefit feeding into suburban clubs and players.

Niche sports

Which brings us back to the niche sport of ice hockey, played in Australia since 1906, an Australian Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation-affiliated organisation and whose Goodall Cup is the world’s third oldest ice hockey trophy.

Yet Ice Hockey Australia (IHA) is near broke, having burnt through almost $2m in two years on various national teams’ fruitless pursuits of promotion into Olympic contention. Worse still, its 6000 registered players are awaiting a decision on a new player levy to help dig the organisation out of debt.

Member associations from Queensland, NSW, ACT, Victoria, SA and WA, as well as old-timers and national league representatives participating in a recent virtual annual general meeting, discovered the once rosy balance of $1.9m at the end of COVID has disappeared.

IHA president Dr Ryan O’Handley instead told member associations that the year’s operations delivered a $373,000 loss with no likelihood of a turnaround in the next 12-18 months.

“We cannot entirely understand how this could have happened,” said Ice Hockey ACT president and former IHA board member and treasurer Adrian Miller. “In 2020, which was the last normal pre-COVID season, we had banked a $100,000 surplus, and through COVID, we amassed a huge war chest of nearly $800,000.”

IHA once elected as its CEO/president a Canadian-declared bankrupt and failed pyramid schemer who had fled Toronto owing creditors more than $1.25M. IHA’s staff today includes a general manager on a six-figure package, a former NRL player, whose only sport management experience is in engagement and personnel development. Adam Woolnough has no professional qualifications in sport management and was hired a year ago when IHA’s preferred candidate withdrew after the final interview.

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Dr O’Handley ignored a list of questions we sent about his organisation’s arrangements with the NHL and Australia’s own semi-professional national league, instead posting a statement to IHA’s website, as well as issuing a general warning to his board and member associations about “communication security.”

“The operational loss…was expected as significant investment has been made to restart our national (team) programs,” O’Handley said.

Ice hole

There is no sign the financial hole will disappear anytime soon. As one of 33 unfunded sports out of almost 100 organisations eligible for financial support from the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), it’s likely it will be IHA’s playing members who will pay the price. They won’t be impressed either to learn that bocce, roller skating and lacrosse rate much higher than their sport, attracting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the ASC.

“Currently IHA’s ‘junior’ membership comprises less than one quarter of the total players, and that’s a scandal too,” says Miller. “Too much of IHA’s precious time, money and resources are spent on national teams and elite player camps, and not enough on affordability, come-and-play programs, junior development or mass participation.”

IHA did attract an $18,000 grant from the Australian Paralympic Committee through the Agitos Foundation and as well as a Commonwealth Department of Social Services ‘gift’ of $340,000 to expand para ice hockey nationwide, but members know little more than that.

Under ASIC requirements, IHA’s last financial report – lodged 16 February 2022 – provides only basic details for members to peruse. There are no details provided about how the grant funds have been spent, let alone how much of the members’ fees are provided to national teams.

Enter the NHL

Over the 23-24 September weekend, the NHL will descend on Australia with squads made up from their LA and Arizona franchises – the Kings and Coyotes respectively – but not the actual teams. They will showcase professional ice hockey in a way never seen down under. The risk will be that come the following weekend and thereafter, nothing the fans have just witnessed live will be replicated in any of the 20 ice rinks around Australia.

Tickets are priced between $250-$1200 per seat at a re-set Rod Laver Arena where more than $1m is being spent to build an outdoor ice rink. Only one Australian-developed player – Nathan Walker in 2017– has ever made the world’s top ice hockey league. He’s currently signed with the St Louis Blues.

IHA member association presidents and their partners have been invited – with $15,000 of members’ annual dues funding a hotel room for two nights and free entry – to an IHA-funded ‘Fire and Ice’ cocktails at Crown Casino on 21 September.

“At whom is this event even targeted?” asked one IHA insider, adding:

It’s a cocktail event in search of a martini, it seems.

IHA president Ryan O’Handley describes the cocktails in his invitation to member associations as “a very exciting event.”

Not everyone in the sport agrees.

“We have a structural deficit with no indication of a strategy to address it,” says Adrian Miller. “Worse still, we have a recently watered-down constitution with poor governance provisions – all of which is a recipe, if not for a disaster, for potentially corrupt behaviour.”

There’s no argument, as the prime minister contends, that “sport is a great teacher … about teamwork and resilience and the joy of shared success,” but when the majority of the dollars from government go to the elites — to the top tiers of sport leagues and teams – the funding bypasses the health, community and grassroots engagement benefits which are much more important than a gold medal around an athlete’s neck.

Whether it’s netball set to lose $7.5m in the next three years on its Super Netball while its local clubs struggle, or Ice Hockey Australia mired in a near half-million dollar hole with no way out, the message is clear: unless the grassroots are fed and nurtured, there is no sport.

Sandi Logan was a journalist from 1974-1984 (Fairfax, Toronto Sun, ABC-TV & Radio); a DFAT diplomat from 1984-2002, serving in Port Moresby (1988-90), Bonn (1993-96) and Washington DC (1998-2002); a media adviser to federal Liberal and Labor ministers; a communications executive and spokesman for the AFP and the Department of Immigration; and most recently an author of the non-fiction book BETRAYED (Hachette). Originally from Canada, he has also played ice hockey for more than 60 years.

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