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Athletics NSW and Little Athletics NSW announce partnership

The two peak bodies for the sport in NSW will introduce a single membership structure next season, ending over half a century of division.

The two peak bodies for the sport in NSW will introduce a single membership structure next season, ending over half a century of division.

Cover photo from the NSW Junior Championships. From next season athletes will only need a single membership to participate in the sport in NSW. Photo by Fred Etter.

The NSW Athletics Partnership was announced today ahead of an expected increase in interest in the sport next season after the 2024 Olympic Games, with Athletics NSW and Little Athletics NSW joining forces to simplify and enhance the athletics experience in the state.

The partnership has three core pillars of:

  • One Affiliation structure
  • One Membership offering; and
  • One Championships and Events pathway open to all participants in the NSW Athletics community.

“This new Partnership puts our kids and Centres as the focus of everything we do”Little Athletics NSW Chair, Costa Zakis

Little Athletics NSW Chair, Costa Zakis, has been a driving force for progress since assuming the position following last year’s AGM.

“This new Partnership puts our kids and Centres as the focus of everything we do and ensures that we will provide them with the best possible experience of Little Athletics and the best possible opportunity to have a lifelong journey with our sport,” said Little Athletics NSW Chair, Costa Zakis.

“It is also a direct answer to the longstanding calls from our Centres to end the disconnect and disunity that existed with ANSW and provides a platform for much greater collaboration.

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“As a parent of kids who have been through Little Athletics and continued into ANSW competition and a long-time Little Athletics Centre administrator, I am excited to see that journey made easier for all Little Athletics kids in NSW and to see more and more youngsters having a lifelong journey with Athletics – as I have enjoyed.”

Athletics NSW Chair, Matt Whitbread.

The vision and enthusiasm is shared by Athletics NSW Chair, Matt Whitbread.

“The establishment of the NSW Athletics Partnership is a significant milestone in the history of Athletics in NSW and Australia,” Whitbread said.

“For the first time in 56 years, ANSW and LANSW will have a singular focus on providing a unified and exceptional experience of Athletics for our members. That singular focus will be where it should be – on our Athletes and Clubs and not on the administrations.

“As a Committee member of a One Athletics Club, I have seen up close the growth and benefits that our members receive when there is a simple and clear single pathway – and now everyone in NSW will have that same opportunity.”

For the time being, the two organisations will remain separate legal entities, with separate boards and separate CEOs.

This consumer friendly focus – removing the complexity and duplication of interacting with multiple organisations within the sport – is to be highly applauded.

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Little Athletics was famously founded in Geelong in 1964 when those running the sport in Victoria didn’t allow for participation of children under the age of 12. It was a significant failure from those governing the sport at the time to not change to meet changing demands and environment.

Little Athletics became an iconic activity that has enriched the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, as well as enhancing Australian athletics. However, fast forward 60 years and consumer and community expectations of sport have shifted significantly: administration should be streamlined, efficient and consumer focused; and governance should be contemporary and effective. This NSW initiative addresses the former and shows promising signs towards the latter.

Expectations have also shifted dramatically in the expectations of the quality of experience children have in their sporting activities.

The NSW partnership announcement comes in the same week that Athletics Australia launched a new junior product, Next Athletics. The product focuses on the development of the fundamental motor skills of running, jumping and throwing in a fun games-based format delivered by accredited coaches over 45-60 minute sessions delivered on a school-term basis. It follows the model of junior entry level products in almost every other sport, focusing on a positive first experience of the sport for all participants.

In contrast, the core Little Athletics product – competition focused and delivered by parents with high variability in participant experience – has developed organically without material change over the past half century. Little Athletics Australia acknowledged this challenge in 2021 advertising, but not filling, a Product Manager role to review, develop and implement a new product to address the alarming 85% churn rate at the peak age of its participation base.

“It has been recognised by the LAA Board, staff and Member associations the way in which a child experiences Little Athletics may no longer be optimal or relevant within the Australian sporting landscape and as such needs to be more appealing to a broader consumer base,” the Little Athletics Australia position description reads.

Extract from 2021 Little Athletics Australia Product Manager Position Description

(Read advertisement and PD in full)

Athlete membership is declining, and the organisation holds one of the highest churn rates in Australia for participation at around 85% for children aged 9-10yo. Some of this can be attributed to our membership structure and the competition in the marketplace for comparable sporting experiences. But significantly with 34% of 5-15yo’s reporting they had become bored or lost interest, the participant satisfaction in the Little Athletics experience is most likely the highest contributor to athlete decline. 

In children aged between 5-9yo only 16% identified competition as the primary reason they are attracted to the sport. With the predominate mode of delivery at centres being competition this can explain the poor experience children and their parents have in those centres where tradition delivery is prime. Even those who take part for competition additionally seek skill development, training and social benefits from their experience in Little Athletics. 

The Little Athletics product does not currently adequately provide opportunity to children under 5 years of age. Tiny Tots is delivered in some States and Territories, and anecdotal feedback indicates the potential appetite for physical development for children 3-5-year old’s. 

As a result of this environment LAA and Member Associations have indicated a desire and preparedness to address the issue.

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That desire hasn’t translated into any material change led by Little Athletics Australia, but has now been acted upon by Athletics Australia (with Athletics NSW having also introduced a similar product earlier this season – Athletics NSW Kids).

There is much to be loved about Little Athletics – its well known brand, its geographical footprint and the dedication of local volunteers in its delivery. It would be ironic, but tragic, were Little Athletics, a product and movement formed out the inability of those governing athletics in the 1960s to change and evolve, to decline because of the same inertia shown in the 2020s by its nominal national body.

In my view, its Family, Fun and Fitness focus can only be enhanced and reimagined for the 21st century through whole of sport collaboration and leadership, and in that regard the strategic partnership in the development of NSW Athletics is another important step forward. So here’s to celebrating that, and that there will be a single – if still to be further refined – pathway for the influx of children who will join the sport in NSW following the Paris Olympics.

More information about the NSW Athletics Partnership can be found on the Little Athletics NSW and Athletics NSW websites.

The lay of the land in Australian athletics

A sport divided for half a century, from next season half of the participants in athletics nationally will have access to single touch-point in their state. In three places (WA, ACT and NT) that is due to there being a single governing body for the sport, while in NSW it will be via a single membership model between the two still separate governing bodies of Athletics NSW and Little Athletics NSW.

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If you liked this article, you might like our series from December 2023 where we interviewed leaders in the sport on the state of play, 2 years after Little Athletics Australia did not gain enough support from its state associations to support its proposal to merge with Athletics Australia: