2022 In-Depth

Rain and rewards: the reality of volunteering in sport

I am soaked from the rain, shivering cold, sleep deprived, and covered in grass.

That is how my first experience volunteering in sport went.

I was helping with the setup of a rugby league game in Wagga Wagga. We had left Canberra that morning at 7 A.M. and despite my best efforts to use a blanket to block out the noise, I did not get much sleep on the trip.

Fast forward nine hours, all I’ve had to eat is tasteless canteen food, it is pouring down rain, and I am dragging signage across the field in shoes that were white when I stepped off the bus but are now a lovely shade of dirt brown.

I’m not even the biggest fan of rugby league so my experience left me feeling uninspired and questioning what the point was of volunteering in sport.

What I have found out later is that the point is to give back to your community, your sport, or your city, by being a part of the crew that delivers exceptional sporting events to passionate sporting fans.

Volunteers at the Women's Basketball World Cup posing for a photo.
Volunteer Cass (far right) at the FIBA Women’s World Cup

Many sporting clubs and organisations are unable to run without volunteers who fill a multitude of roles such as coaches, officials, administrators, and committee members across club and elite levels.

It is estimated that over three million Australians or about 14.3% of people over the age of 15 are involved as volunteers in sport and recreation.

Clearinghouse for Sport estimate the value of the labour put in by these volunteers to be up to $4 billion per year.

However, volunteer rates are on the decline, and Australia is yet to return to the number of volunteers we had before the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Volunteers are essential to the sustainability of sports clubs and events as they donate their time to clubs and organisations who do not have the funds to employ staff.

Seemingly forgetting my previously poor experience helping out in sport, I ended up being someone who did return to volunteering after the pandemic.

Man shoots a basketball court in front of a large crowd.
Fans shooting in a half time competition at the FIBA Women’s World Cup

I decided to send in an application to volunteer at the Women’s Basketball World Cup in Sydney.

Basketball is much more my sport, and it had been 27 years since the last time Australia hosted the event so I thought I would try and get in on the action.

My application was successful, and a few months later I was alone in Sydney about to be surrounded by basketball with over 150 other volunteers and a multitude of fans for 10 days straight.

My role was as an Activations Assistant which meant that I was outside in the event fan zone, watching people have a casual shoot around while making sure no kids get trampled by some man who thinks he’s the next Patty Mills.

At first I was butthurt to have been shoved outside, I felt robbed of my chance to walk by some international athletes on their way to a match. How was I going to get some unbelievable story to tell all my friends about afterwards?

To top it all off, in a cruel parallel to my time in Wagga Wagga it was forecast to rain most of the week.

But let me tell you that during that event I met some people who taught me what volunteering in is all about and saw just how sport can bring people together.

One of the very first people I met during my shifts was a woman by the name of Cass Perry.

Cass is a mum of two and her family’s passion for women’s basketball had flown them from Karratha in Western Australia all the way to Sydney.

When asked what it was that bought her all that way, she said it was for the love of Australian sport.

“We’re a big basketball family and thought it was bloody awesome that all these players are coming to us,” she said. “I’m from a little, old town and not many people get the chance anywhere to see this. We’re pretty lucky.”

Cass decided to give up her time to become a volunteer so she could see what such a big sporting event was like behind the scenes.

“I’ve done lots of stuff for our local club so I know how helpful extra hands can be and thought this might be something different. Already there is way more people helping to run the show than I expected and in jobs that I didn’t know existed. I met one volunteer that just helps fill up the players water bottles during a game.”

One of her favourite moments from her time as a volunteer was initiating a game of 3×3 basketball on one of the outdoor courts. It got fans from all over the place to interact with each other over a shared passion.

“Some groups were getting way into it. Then we had a crowd form of people watching and cheering on, it was really nice to see people just connect over basketball.”

Cass’ work as a volunteer didn’t go unnoticed and she was recognised as an outstanding volunteer by her supervisor.

As well as being a nice thank you for her efforts, she was gifted a premium experience ticket for the day of the semi-finals. This meant that she got the opportunity to sit courtside and watch the team she flew so far to see up close and personal.

An experience she said was once in a lifetime.

As well as getting your hands on some very nice perks, volunteering has also been linked to positive health benefits too.

Research has shown that there are social, physical, and mental benefits, such as feeling more optimistic and connected, and reduced risk of morality.

Maintaining volunteering activity can be a contributing factor to reducing stress and psychological distress.

Sport Australia have introduced a four-year plan to renew focus on sport volunteering which involves promoting the benefits of helping out.

The plan encourages clubs to consider how they can maximise their available volunteer skillsets, while also providing support to people who need it.

Volunteers standing with Han Xu of China.
Volunteer Rob (right) with silver medallist Han Xu of China

Another person who donated their time to the Women’s Basketball World Cup was Rob Halligan, a communications worker from Sydney’s western suburbs.

Rob first started out in sponsor support but ended up helping in the fan zone as well. He enjoyed his role so much that picked up extra shifts to help out as much as he could.

With not much knowledge of women’s basketball under his belt, he was looking forward to watching as many games as possible and getting to know some of the big-name athletes.

“I’m just a casual basketball fan, I’ve been to the Sydney Kings games quite a bit but hadn’t got to a women’s game,” he said. While the style of game is different, it has still been amazing to watch.”

Rob made the half court activation his home while volunteering. While this gave him the opportunity to work on his own shooting skills, he was also able to get amongst the fans and encourage participation.

“It was great to see everyone giving it a go. There was obviously people who play regularly who came down but then there was tiny little kids who were no way close to reaching the ring, and I even got some grandparents having a try. They were all just happy to be there and that was enough for them to feel accomplished.”

This was Rob’s first-time volunteering in sport and despite it raining almost every second night, the quality of the experience and the benefits were a nice surprise for him.

“The passion from the fans was unreal and I got to see it at pretty much every game! There is this cool uniform to take home and I meet so many interesting people from all over Australia, it was a fantastic 10 days.”

Volunteering at elite sporting events or with your local community club comes with an array of benefits to both you and the organisation.

While I can’t guarantee you won’t get rained on like I did, if you give volunteering a go you may just get to be a part of something truly special.

Photos by Grace Buckmaster