Ashlea Block | How I turned a passion for volunteering into a career in sport

Whether it be a friendly face handing out water at roadside during a marathon, the treasurer at a local cricket club or the coach of a youth soccer team, volunteers make the world of community sport go round.

Yet there are still significant challenges and demands being placed on volunteers that impact retention and have a knock-on effect on participation.

Ashlea Block, head of community at PlayHQ and a member of SportsPro’s NEW ERA class of 2022, discusses how she has channelled her passion for community sport into a career in the sports industry, how technology can ease the burden on volunteers, and some of the solutions she has helped implement in her current role and at Tennis Australia.

How did your interest in volunteering and community sport evolve?

During my childhood, I spent most of my time playing community sports. I dreamed of becoming a professional athlete, but as it panned out, I didn’t quite have the talent for it. But even without the illustrious sporting career, I didn’t want my involvement in sport to end.

After finishing high school, I pursued a sport management degree, which led me to work in community/grassroots sports. Through a variety of roles, along with my participation as a player, it was obvious that volunteers were the reason people had the opportunity to play the sports we loved. Without volunteers, playing each week would be impossible.

Based on your own experiences, what are some of the biggest challenges facing volunteers in community sport that people might not realise?

Without a doubt, the number one challenge for volunteers would be the time they have to invest. Nowadays, many people are rightly discussing how to prioritise and invest their time. The burden that volunteers face from a governance, time, and administrative perspective is significant.

Community sports clubs have endless tasks to manage, from organising coaches and collecting fees to managing participant data and figuring out how to run the canteen and social media. Volunteers who do this week after week have their own families, full-time jobs, and other hobbies. Yet many dedicate over 40 hours a week to ensure that all of these tasks are not only completed, but completed to a high standard that ensures a great experience for the participants. Most participants wouldn’t know how much work is going on behind the scenes!

In addition to time, we also ask our volunteers to be across many complex issues such as privacy compliance, competition rules and regulations, child safety and much more.

The role volunteers play in sport can often go unnoticed

How have you been able to channel your interest in community sport into a professional career?

In Australia, community sport is built off the back of hard-working volunteers. It’s estimated that volunteers dedicate AUS$4 billion in free labour value each year to keep community sport running. This administrative burden not only results in poor retention of volunteers, but impacts the overall experience of those involved in sport and limits participation opportunities. Therefore, there are plenty of opportunities to have a professional career to support this workforce.

Throughout my professional career, I have been incredibly fortunate to work in community sports. For nearly nine years, I worked at Tennis Australia in various roles, and now for the past two years, I have been the head of community at PlayHQ. My focus has primarily been on the digital products that enhance the community sport experience, making sport more accessible for participants and easier to manage for volunteers.

What role can technology play in easing the burden on volunteers? What would be the knock-on impact of doing so?

As with most industries, technology has significantly changed the way community sporting clubs operate. They are also no longer just competing with each other, sports clubs are competing with other activities, which means recruiting and retaining participants becomes another task for volunteers.

By providing modern technology that can help ease the burden on volunteers, it can free them up to focus on bigger tasks at the club such as player recruitment (or maybe just have some time back for themselves!). For example, volunteers can save time by using a product like PlayHQ, where all participants can register online, provide their details and pay their fees. This is a far better experience than having participants fill out paper forms (sounds old school, but it still happens) then enter this information into a spreadsheet which can be easily lost.

Not only can this save some time, but it can also take care of some of the more complex things that volunteers might face, such as ensuring privacy compliance. A good technology platform would have the appropriate compliance embedded in the system that’s based on the rules of that country and the governing body.

Even using a standard website template builder like Wix or a similar product is a good idea for local sporting clubs. They may not have the skill set to manage something custom-made and it would also come at a significant cost. By using something like Wix, websites are easy to create and maintain. Even if someone in the club has the skills to develop a custom site, with high volunteer turnover, chances are they will move on in two to three years, and it is important new committee members at the club can quickly maintain existing sites.

Are there any particular projects you’ve worked on in the community sport sector that have delivered significant results?

Two come to mind quickly. The first being the implementation of PlayHQ and the second the rollout of a product called Book a Court during my time at Tennis Australia.

PlayHQ is a competition management platform that allows community clubs to manage registrations and payments for competitions they play in. Meanwhile, the league/association manages all other aspects of the competition, with PlayHQ automating tasks like ladder updates and reporting. PlayHQ is designed to spread the workload across many, rather than it all falling on one volunteer. PlayHQ is now used by over 10,000 community clubs across Australia and New Zealand, with millions of players registered.

Meanwhile, Book a Court allows tennis clubs to advertise court hire online. Participants simply search, book, and pay. Upon booking, participants receive a PIN which unlocks the gate and automatically turns on the lights for the duration of their booking.

The outcomes of this project have had a significant impact on the community. Prior to Book a Court, tennis venues were often sitting idle outside of competition or coaching and now have a way of increasing usage without adding to the volunteer burden.

It also significantly changed the participant experience. Previously, the process for court hire at tennis clubs was ‘go collect the key, often from kilometres away, leave a cash deposit…’. It was typically too hard for clubs to facilitate or too hard for participants, meaning courts were limited to only members and often left empty.

Book a Court resulted in over AUS$10 million in new revenue for local clubs and an additional 292,000 non-tennis members picking up a racquet each year.

Ashlea Block helped to implement Tennis Australia's Book a Court programme, which helped contribute AUS$10 million in new revenue for local clubs (Image credit: Tennis Australia)

What more do you think needs to be done to help those in the community sports sector and what steps can be taken to get there?

Whilst I think technology can play a huge role in helping volunteers with the workload, we also need to be cognisant of the fact that this technology could be another task for volunteers to manage and the change at first may take time, particularly for older volunteers.

Given the importance when implementing products such as PlayHQ and Book a Court, the whole volunteer experience must be considered. From onboarding and training to how you listen to ongoing feedback and communicate new features, it’s important that volunteers have the information available to them in the format that suits (video, written, in-person) to ensure they feel supported when adapting to these products.

Governing bodies and businesses have a responsibility to ensure that all areas of change are considered from the volunteer and player perspective to ensure ultimate adoption and achieve the goals of reducing admin burden on volunteers and increasing sport participation.