Sport succeeds on the back of volunteers. In Ireland, over half a million people are involved in voluntary activity of some kind, and after social and charitable work, sport has the next highest number of volunteers, an estimated 180,000.
More and more, sporting organisations are attempting to get to know the people who give their time so freely. It is part of the growing up process in terms of sport in Ireland. There is an awareness among most well-run associations that they need to improve their interaction with all those who are working for them.
The Camogie Association has just produced an impressive piece of research which is another welcome addition to the volume of work being accumulated in this area.
In 2013, the Irish Sports Monitor looked closely at volunteering, and while it found that there had been a small decline in the number of people volunteering, there was an increase in the amount of time being given by people to sport. This was an interesting development because given the level of distress in the economy, it was hardly surprising that there was a fall off in volunteers, but that did not equate to less time being devoted to sport; the gap was filled by those who stayed at it.
Naturally, the general perception when it comes to sport is that there is a strong male domination and this was reflected in the Irish Sports Monitor, when 68 per cent of those surveyed said that they believed this to be the case nationally. However, when asked about the situation at a more local level, it turns out that 60 per cent of people think the balance between male and female is just right. What is particularly interesting about the Camogie Association's research is that they focused their attention on administrators - chairpersons, secretaries and treasurers. Normally this type of research will focus on the broader group of volunteers who make up officials, coaches, fundraisers and so on. In choosing to concentrate on the key officials who are at the heart of all clubs, and indeed county boards, the Camogie Association has brought a new twist to the research in this area.
At the outset, the report's authors explain: "This study looks to build a profile of the camogie officer who works at all levels of the Camogie Association in a voluntary capacity, administering the sport of camogie. Through building this profile, the Camogie Association will understand how administrators feel about their volunteering experience, the reasons they volunteer and what further support is needed for them to carry out their job to the highest standards possible."
Generally, those volunteers who graduate to, or aspire to, hold an office at club, county or provincial level, are people who believe they can effect change in a good way. They have an ambition to achieve some success in the role and while the definitions of what that success might be may be broad - whether it be a personal goal attained, or achievement on the field of play, or financial stability, and so on - it will ultimately be for the greater good. That is the underlying basis of volunteering. More and more, we have seen an evolution in the type of person who becomes an official at some level in the sense that it is likely that they will be in full-time employment. The Camogie Association report found that 71 per cent of its administrators work as an employee, and almost nine per cent are self-employed.
As a result of its research, the Camogie Association knows the following about its administrators: almost half are aged between 40 and 49; nearly eight out of 10 are in full-time employment; just 18 per cent are current players; almost 74 per cent are involved because they have a daughter, or daughters, who play the game; 80 per cent of administrators spend up to two hours every day on their camogie duties; almost 40 per cent volunteer in some capacity with another sporting organisation, and the main ones cited were the GAA, Community Games, soccer, Cumann na mBunscol and the parents' association in the local school, ladies football and badminton.
Twice as many men as women are involved in team sports. There is increased awareness across society now around the issue of women in sport, but perhaps the debate doesn't go far enough. Because it's not just about the level of opportunities afforded to women to participate in sport, or indeed about those actual participation levels. It's also about women being involved in every aspect of sport. It is hardly a surprise that in this survey, 78 per cent of the administrators were female. Women dominate administration in sports played by women, and men in sports played by men. Sport would benefit from a greater gender balance off the field of play too.
So, the challenges are obvious, but at least the Association knows what they are. They know their greatest appeal is to the parents of girls who take up the sport. Just over half of those surveyed said the main reason they became involved in administration was because, "my child was involved with camogie, so I wanted to volunteer". This can be a sport's greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. In reality, there needs to be a wider appeal to attract help; more people need to become involved who have no direct family connection to the sport.
It would be interesting to see the results of similar surveys across other sporting organisations because if you leave aside the gender issue, it is likely that many of the other findings would correspond.
The age profile of administrators is another issue facing many sports. There is no doubt that experience is important when it comes to administration at any level, and many people bring the skills they acquire from their profession or place of work, but it is also clear that sports need to attract more young people - and especially players - into this area. One of the biggest problems which faces many sports is a perception of a disconnect between players and administrators, at club and county level, and very often this is the simplest solution. This is how to grow the sport.
Among the key recommendations in the report are undertaking further research to establish a system of best practice, providing more workshops and training for officials, developing initiatives to attract younger talent and - probably the most important of all - showing appreciation and support for volunteers. There is nothing hugely revolutionary in the report's conclusions, but the Camogie Association has taken a huge step forward in terms of its own growth.
Sunday Indo Sport