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“Not a sustainable or viable model for the sport to move forward” – Athletics West plans to leave Little Athletics Australia

Australia’s most progressive state athletics association plans to sever ties with the Little Athletics national body citing inefficiency, cost and a dispute over trademarks.

Australia’s most progressive state athletics association plans to sever ties with the Little Athletics national body citing inefficiency, cost and a dispute over trademarks.

The public announcement by Athletics West of its lack of confidence in the purpose of one of its national bodies disrupts an already fragmented Australian athletics landscape and lays the foundations for transformational change within the governance of the sport nationally.

The event of a state association ‘breaking away’ and maintaining use of some Little Athletics intellectual property is an existential threat to the national body, as it is currently constituted and operating.

The Background

In 2020 Western Australia became the first state to merge its Little Athletics and ‘senior’ athletics bodies. The ACT followed suit last year, with NSW announcing plans for a single affiliation, membership and competition offering for the sport next season, while maintaining two separate organisations.

If Athletics West ultimately choses not to affiliate with Little Athletics Australia, which requires a change to the state body’s Constitution, it will become the second state to leave the umbrella body for Little Athletics in recent years, following Athletics Northern Territory’s departure in 2021. At the time Athletics Northern Territory wrote in their Annual Report: “following several years receiving very little benefit from LAA for our association and athletes, your Board made the decision to no longer affiliate with LAA.”

These developments in the governance of athletics follow unrest since the failure of the 2021 national merger between Little Athletics Australia and Athletics Australia. Both national bodies had employed a joint CEO and developed a business case endorsed by their Boards, advocating to their state associations to vote to create a single national body; Athletics Australia’s state associations provided the required approval, while Little Athletics Australia’s state associations did not.

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Since then, under new leadership, Little Athletics Australia has strategically shifted away from a unified future for the sport and instead pursue an enhanced position for its national body. This includes:

  • Aspirations for recognition as a National Sporting Organisation from the Australian Sports Commission (LAA are ineligible for this recognition under current guidelines);
  • Pursuing membership of the obscure former socialist workers sporting organisation International Workers and Amateurs in Sport Confederation (who don’t provide junior competition); and
  • Expansion of the Australian Little Athletics Championships (against the principles of their One Athletics business case, of ‘an aligned pathway across competitions at a national level for predominately U13-U18 athletes that provides clarity uniformity and a level playing field for all.’)

The dispute

Athletics West claim that by leaving LAA that they will save $75,000 annually as well as having increased opportunities for sponsorship, with no effect on local grassroots competition delivery by Centres. In addition, the complexity and frustration of working with two governing bodies, will be eliminated.

On the flip side, by not being affiliated with LAA 53 athletes from WA would not be eligible to participate in the Australian Little Athletics Championships, while Centres would not receive free bananas provided under a national sponsorship estimated to be worth around $750,000 in cash to LAA.

Athletics West’s business case to its affiliated Clubs and Centres is available on its website.

The Little Athletics Western Australia logo. The words Little Athletics Western Australia are part of a trademark dispute between Little Athletics Australia and its WA state association.

What’s in a name?

Athletics West’s communication to its stakeholders notes that it had been exploring alternative affiliation models with LAA for some time and that during these discussions, without notice or consultation, LAA applied to register the trademarks for “Little Athletics WA” and “Little Athletics Western Australia.” This has clearly been viewed as an antagonistic move by the national body and a key factor in the relationship breakdown between the two organisations.

Little Athletics Australia (LAA) is the owner of the trademark for “Little Athletics” and related properties, including the slogans “Family Fun and Fitness” and “Be Your Best.” State bodies are provided a license to use this intellectual property through their affiliation with LAA.

In March 2023 LAA’s lawyers filed a trademark application for the LAA logo as well as variants with the names for each state and territory association.

In October 2023 Athletics West lodged opposition to that registration, arguing that the use of the trademark is contrary to law and is similar to a trademark which has acquired a reputation in Australia. Central to Athletics West’s claims are that Little Athletics West Australia had developed its name and reputation for over 50 years of continuous use and development by previous boards and WA Little Athletics Centres.

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Neither Little Athletics Australia, Athletics West (nor any state Little Athletics body) have lodged any trademark claim on the logos or names of the approximately 500 Little Athletics Centres around Australia.

The logo for Australian athletics that was proposed in 2021 by Little Athletics Australia and Athletics Australia for a new national body

What does this mean nationally?

This is a matter that potentially has far reaching ramifications outside of Western Australia. Without at all doubting the sincerity of the important considerations for athletics in WA, the flow-on effects could fundamentally change the governance landscape nationally.

Previous multiple attempts of a merger to create a single national peak body for athletics have followed the model of trying to convince all state organisations of both of AA and LAA that change is better than the status quo. There has usually been resistance, unexplained in any real detail by LAA states that have opposed change, but it can be safely assumed that out of comfort with the status quo they haven’t seen a reason for change. Maxims like ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ are occasionally thrown around by some stakeholders on social media, despite LAA’s own articulation of fundamental problems such as an 85% churn rate in the peak Little Athletics age group of U9.

The effect of the recent work of progressive state Little Athletics associations such as Athletics West is a shift in the environment: those states that are either apprehensive about, or downright resistant to, change may be left with no other viable alternative but to explore a single national body.

The business model of Little Athletics Australia, and therefore its viability and sustainability, is directly under threat.

LAA’s current business model is underpinned by management of intellectual property. As an activity that is entirely reliant on localised delivery by volunteers in local communities, and with the lightest of light touch on the program content or quality control, there is very little direct benefit that LAA presently provides to grassroots Little Athletics. That which it does provide can otherwise be sourced elsewhere either by a state organisation and/or under Athletics Australia’s umbrella. The exception to this, is the use of the name Little Athletics – arguably.

To put it differently, if LAA didn’t exist local Centres would hardly notice. 99% of the experience of Little Athletics would remain the remit of local Centres and their state association.

LAA sources 46% of its $2.7M revenue from administration and insurance levies paid by participants through their state associations and 34% through sponsorship. A permanent decrease in its participant base creates pressure on these two revenue streams that account for 80% of LAA’s income: both directly through loss of affiliation fees and by diminishing the value of LAA’s commercial properties.

Although WA makes up only 7% of Little Athletics participation nationally, and LAA currently has ample reserves of $1.7M, the event of a state association ‘breaking away’ and maintaining use of some Little Athletics intellectual property is an existential threat to the national body, as it is currently constituted and operating. If a large east coast state were to ever follow WA’s suit, LAA’s current business model, which operated at a $163K loss last year, would effectively collapse. One would hope that things won’t come to that.

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Of course, by not affiliating Athletics West would lose its governance role within LAA – it could no longer have a vote on anything to do with LAA including any potential future merger – but the effect of lighting a spark to create a burning platform for change is far more impactful than the 1 of 7 votes it could otherwise exercise.

With so much at stake, there’s the potential for a lot of the sport’s money to be wasted on legal action one way or another. The alternative is for all stakeholders – within Little Athletics and the sport widely – to negotiate new solutions to the problems that have plagued the leadership and management of the sport for over half a century.

Following further detailed planned engagement Athletics West’s clubs will vote on leaving Little Athletics Australia at a Special General Meeting on 7 August.

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