Clubs bounce back, but new concern in cricket census

The annual survey reveals that club players and volunteers returned in strong numbers after COVID-19 lockdowns, but one worrying trend emerged

While Australia's club cricketers have bucked national trends by returning to the game in force following recent COVID-19 lockdowns, the latest snapshot of the game's overall health has revealed a worrying decline in a crucial demographic.

The latest cricket census – Cricket Australia's annual survey of male and female participants across all organised competitions and programs – showed significant growth in junior club cricketers (4.6 per cent) and senior players (5 per cent) in the past year.

The rise, with total registered participation increasing from 539,424 in 2020-21 to 598,931 in 2021-22 (up 11 per cent), is at odds with other major Australia sports that have struggled to lure young and senior players back to competition after lockdowns, particularly in large population markets of New South Wales and Victoria.

Image Id: B830B6B14D3D4880AFDF82108A7D0E30 Image Caption: Many cricket clubs around the country were shut due to COVID-19 lockdowns // Getty

That increase was again most starkly evident in female participation which grew by 12,000 to a total of 71,300 (up 20 per cent) on the back of CA and CommBank's ongoing investment in the women's game and the profile of Australia's all-conquering women's team.

The number of girls registered for junior club cricket in Australia has also grown by around 2,500 (representing a spike of more than 23 per cent) since the summer of 2019-20, prior to the global pandemic.

However, while the census highlighted the remarkable efforts of club volunteers and players heavily impacted by the challenges of COVID-19 and floods in NSW and Queensland earlier this year, it also exposed a 10.5 per cent decline in registered first-time Woolworths Cricket Blast participants.

The Blast program – which teaches basic cricket skills to children aged 4-10 – is seen as vital in attracting girls and boys (as well as their families) to the sport and ensuring they develop sufficient acumen and understanding to keep them involved as they progress to adolescence and adulthood.

In 2021-22, the number of Blast participants fell from 63,158 to 56,547.

The drop in attracting new participants to cricket can be attributed in part to the enforced closure of some Woolworths Cricket Blast centres at the height of last year's pandemic lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne, and to fears around the virus's omicron wave at the start of 2022.

Image Id: 271B025350E24D0AAD9FE19530399571 Image Caption: Woolworths Cricket Blast participants at the 2021/22 BBL season launch // Getty

But CA is reviewing the Blast program to ensure it continues to provide the experience and flexibility needed to attract first-time participants to cricket, and target participants in the 5-12 age group as a key element in the new corporate strategy to be released later this month.

"There's no doubt cricket can be a complex sport if you haven't developed the fundamental movement skills at a young age," CA's Executive General Manager Community Cricket, James Allsopp, said today.

"And we've got some really strong data that shows if you haven't played cricket and learned the skills of the game before you're 12, it's less likely you'll play cricket as a teenager or into adulthood. 

"Some of the things we're doing, and what we're building into the strategy, are designed to make sure we can turn this around so we don't miss a generation of new participants, we just miss a year.

"That's the problem we're determined to solve over the next 12 months.

"Club cricket is fantastic, and we're really proud of the results there, but we've got to bring new kids and families into the game."

Image Id: ED44E6F78B8B4BC49672F53E37DBFBE6 Image Caption: The program teaches basic cricket skills to children aged 4-10 // Getty

Despite the Blast program continuing to receive positive feedback from participants and their families, the review will focus on the quality of the experience it delivers with a strong emphasis on attracting girls to cricket.

It will also examine whether it provides appropriate levels of support to clubs and volunteers who roll out the program, and if there is sufficient flexibility to ensure children and families can readily access Blast activities at a time that best suits them and doesn't clash with other leisure pursuits.

Allsopp cited the prospect of the Blast program returning to schools – another casualty of the pandemic – as important to redressing the decline in participants, and is hopeful the burden imposed upon clubs and volunteers may begin to ease in the coming summer.

Image Id: 535AD67062DA47CFB7023F973AAB94F7 Image Caption: Blast participants with Steve Smith on the eve of the 2019 Boxing Day Test // Getty

With NSW and Victoria providing around two-thirds of national player numbers across competitions and programs, he claimed it was understandable lockdowns in those states would be reflected somewhere in participation rates.

"If we go back to where cricket was in October-November (2021) in the big markets, there was just no activity," he said.

"Then, when cricket could happen, the club volunteers thought 'we've just got to get competitions up and running' which they did through some amazing work, but it possibly came at the expense of prioritising Woolworths Cricket Blast as a program.

"I think in places like New South Wales, the thought might have been 'we'll run it in term one' (when school resumes) but that's when omicron hit and people were a bit more selective with what they were doing because they didn't want to get infected.

"So it's just been that spiral effect that's had the big impact."

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Those factors also contribute to the 16 per cent drop in registered cricket participation across the board, with the ongoing effect of COVID-19 on indoor cricket and organised school competitions largely responsible for that result.

Even though indoor cricket has resumed at many centres and the national titles returned last June after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, a number of indoor facilities around Australia have been forced to permanently shut their doors.

As a result, while participation numbers for indoor cricket have risen by around 40 per cent from last year (at the height of lockdowns) they remain around 40 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.

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Among the notable numbers from the census, which CA has been conducting annually for two decades and includes some duplication (eg players involved in both junior and senior competitions) are:

- COVID-adjusted (allowing for competitions cancelled due to COVID) registered participation was 722,000 compared with 710,000 in 2019-20 (the most recent non-COVID season)

- Junior club cricket registrations grew from 109,400 to 114,400, a year-on-year increase of 4.6 per cent

- Boys registered for junior cricket increased by 4.5 per cent on the last non-COVID year (2019-20) and girls registered for junior cricket increased by 24.5 per cent in same period

- Registered participation in senior club cricket increased from 212,000 from 223,000 (up 5 per cent year-on-year

- Indoor participation increased from 71,857 to 101,081 and organised school cricket increased from 47,031 to 62,504 as COVID restrictions eased in some locations

- Multicultural registrations at clubs (players born outside Australia or with one parent born outside Australia) rose from 121,100 to 126,000 year-on-year and from 118,100 in 2019-22

Multicultural participants will also be a key focus for CA in the lead-up, duration and wake of the men's T20 World Cup that will be staged in Australia in October-November this year, and which features 'bringing cultures together' as a tournament theme.

Image Id: 6D1B7940B5DC41E19D563C634CAC9327 Image Caption: The SACA ‘Junior World Cup’ at Fitzroy CC in October 2020 // Getty

Allsopp said that event, as well as next year's men's Ashes campaign in the UK which historically has been shown to significantly drive participation due to prime-time television coverage prior to Australian summer, will provide invaluable "runways" to further boost player numbers.

The 20th cricket census, which excludes participants in cricket competitions or programs that don't extend for a minimum four weeks, was conducted in conjunction with the second National Cricket Survey which revealed:

- Satisfaction among players remained positive with senior (+51) and junior club players (+51) returning high Net Promoter Scores (NPS)  

- A decline in satisfaction among volunteers from NPS of +30 to +22 as COVID-19 challenges highlighted the need for strong local level support (including improved digital technology)

- 79 per cent of all cricketers extremely likely to continue playing beyond the next 12 months

- High retention rate among volunteers (75 per cent), coaches (66 per cent) and accredited umpires (70 per cent) despite COVID challenges

- Growing interest in shorter and/or flexible formats, particularly among adult players