Engaging communities with sport during times of crisis

The 2021 Federation University Road National Championships will begin on February 3.

Sporting and community events are a major part of the social and economic fabric of Australia’s regional communities and have faced unprecedented challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many events were cancelled across 2020 and sporting competitions were put on hold or adapted to mitigate the risks to participants and crowds as the pandemic worsened.

Researchers are undertaking a project to understand the issues facing community events, with the major annual cycling event, the Federation University Road National Championships, the focus of a study to contribute to a better understanding of how hosting events can help regional communities recover post-COVID-19.

The study will also provide insights for event managers on delivering community-based events during the pandemic.

Management Lecturer in the Federation Business School, Dr Alana Thomson, said as an events researcher, COVID-19 had drastically interrupted her research landscape.

“Events are something that we took for granted in our pre-COVID lives, they provide reasons for people to connect, socialise and to escape the stresses of everyday life. Then, all of a sudden, we have this hugely disruptive period and we can no longer access that aspect of our lives,” Dr Thomson said.

“AusCycling have been committed to staging the Road National Championships in some form, whether that was with or without spectators, and if it did, with stringent social distancing guidelines. This provides a really unique case study for us to look at and ask what does it mean for the community during this time.”

The researchers asked participants of a survey – people who live or work the Ballarat area – questions including whether they wanted the event, was the event good for the economy, and how did the community understand and value this event during the pandemic.

Hoping for 300 responses, the survey received almost double that within the first 48 hours. The data showed most had positive sentiments about the event.

“People are very aware that bringing an event like this into a regional community has obvious economic benefits and there’s a pride that is felt by the community for hosting a prestigious event,  but they are also aware that some people obviously do feel inconvenienced for a period,” Dr Thomson said.

“It is a cycling event with roads shut down for residents which limits their access, so there's always that kind of trade-off between the costs and benefits of hosting when we're looking at these types of events.

Research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in May showed that three-quarters of the population did not want to attend public events, with lockdowns in some parts of Australia while restrictions were easing in other areas.

“The responses to our recent survey, which had similar questions to the ABS survey, shows that many attitudes in the Ballarat community were quite different to the national survey results from May. Ninety per cent of our respondents indicated they were comfortable or somewhat comfortable to attend a public event – that’s a big difference to the national sentiment that was captured back in May,” Dr Thomson said.

“What we're seeing is that if people have positive associations with an event, that if it's good for the community, if it's good for the economy, if it brings a sense of pride, then overall, we see people are really positive towards the hosting of the event regardless of it being COVID or not. They still want that event happening in their community. Dr Alana Thomson

“The other finding is the more people are passionate about sport, so they might play, volunteer, or be a an avid spectator – if they really passionately connected to sport, then they are more likely to hold a positive view of the event as well.

“It's a very logical finding but what that highlights is that people that are involved in sport really understand the nuances of what an event like this can do for a community. That finding says to me that the more that you're familiar with the power of sport, then you really see that sport has a uniting and impactful potential for your community particularly in a time like we've experienced.

This research project is led by Federation University researchers and is a collaboration across the Business, Education and Arts Schools, with contributing experts from Griffith University, University of Newcastle, University of Queensland and Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom.

The 2021 AusCycling Federation University Road National Championships will be held in Ballarat and Buninyong from 3-7 February, 2021.

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