Pay for what you want

Less government funding may be the best strategy for sport development

The familiar go-to solution for improving Malaysia's performance in international sport is to spend more money. Pay athletes more, improve facilities, bring in foreign coaches and a number of other solutions, all of which cost money, are heard whenever Malaysia suffers an embarrassing loss or whenever a recognized star doesn't perform as expected. Money, if the popular wisdom is correct, will solve everything.

Once again this is one of those things that sounds right but upon further examination turns out not to be true. Improving sport performance becomes a question of scale when considered on a national level. Nationwide we only really see or hear about the Malaysian athletes who compete at the elite level in the Olympics, SEA Games and other high profile competitions. Money is needed to support these athletes and their training but this shouldn't be considered as investing in sport development. It's important but it isn't development.

Real sport development occurs at the lower levels of performance, long before athletes become well known. It is this level, often referred to as the grassroots level, where development needs to be taking place if Malaysia wants to build a perennially strong sport program. Development programs need to get as many youngsters involved in sport as possible and, as I have said more than once in these articles, keep them involved long enough to make a difference.

But here's the problem: Grassroots development is a huge undertaking and one which is not well understood by most sport associations. Because it's such a big job it really doesn't make sense for the government to try and fund it because there simply isn't enough government money to do it. No government on Earth has enough money to bankroll a real grassroots sports program. Government funding would have to be spread so thin that it would end up being inconsequential.

When government money is involved in sport then it is often the only money involved. Sport associations that are given money each year view that as their only funding. The amount is enough to do almost the same things they did last year but not enough to do anything new that would help grow their sports. With this mindset less and less gets done each year and performance never really improves.

Perhaps the best idea to really get sport development off the ground would be for the government to give the associations less money.

So what is the answer? I have a few suggestions:

  • Sport associations need to learn to live off the economy, not the government, to fund grassroots programs. They need to develop a commercial structure and begin operating youth sport programs around the country. This means that instead of relying on the government to fund the association's operations every year they need to find ways of creating income from what they do. Operating youth sport as a commercial enterprise is the only way to do this. Government funding for sport at the elite level or for high level events would continue but sport associations would have to create their own plans and find their own sources of funding to carry them out. AND future government funding for elite training would depend on how well the associations were carrying out the grassroots programs.
  • The government needs to fund sports that make sense for Malaysia. These are sports that children can learn and practice and, over time, get good enough to represent their states or the country if they have the ability. It should avoid funding activities such as motor racing or winter sports. These activities, while popular to watch, are not likely to attract enough participants to build adequate participation for developing elite performers either because of the lack of facilities as in the case of winter sports or the high cost of participation as with motor racing.
  • Establish KPIs for sport association performance. We almost never hear of how associations hold themselves to certain standards of performance or how the government holds the associations collective feet to the fire. I'm not talking about athlete performance, associations don't have as much control of this as is often thought and athlete performance has surprisingly little to do with how well an association does its job. Association performance can be measured in several ways starting with data structures it uses to collect information about its sport, the athletes who play it, facilities, coaches etc. All this information is necessary to the successful administration of a national sport program. The sport association's primary mission should be identified as sport development with evaluation of performance based on how well that process is carried out.
  • Base future funding on association performance (not athlete performance). All associations, even those who are already producing elite athletes, should be made to justify future funding by meeting development KPIs. The government identifies what is important by determining what it spends money on. If sport development is an important "thing" then it must be identified as such. Ways to measure it must be created and associations that meet development KPIs should be given additional funding to maintain progress. Associations that don't meet development KPIs have their funding cut or eliminated.

Sport associations seem to have become part of the government bureaucracy with funding given routinely every year. The point of this article is to encourage officials to stop this routine funding and begin creating ways in which funding can be earmarked to accomplishing specific goals. Pay for what you want.