Updated: Apr 15, 2020
UniSport CEO, Don Knapp sits down to discuss the future of university sport, launch of the new corporate identity, and Nationals event series.
Q. Given the iconic reputation of the Unigames, a lot of people may be wondering why UniSport Australia would want to change it. Can you share some driving forces behind the decision?
A. Unigames has been a fun and iconic event for many students, but binge drinking and some risky behavior remains a concern. The party environment also diminishes the importance and quality of sport. A fundamental reason for the change is risk mitigation and ensuring there is no dissonance between our values and program offerings. We need to create a more serious event that puts sport as the highest priority.
Q. In spite of risk-mitigation strategies already put into place over the last decade, binge drinking has not significantly decreased. Why do you believe that this culture is embedded in the Unigames?
A. Certain cultures and behaviours are entrenched in the event… It’s a rite of passage for lots of students. The Unigames format is 25 years old, and culture is a very hard thing to change. We realise it won’t happen overnight. The change process will be an evolution, not a revolution.
Q. Can you tell me how member universities contribute toward the development of risk mitigation strategies that combat this binge drinking culture?
A. They’ve put a lot of effort into team management, embracing our ‘Be The Influence’ leadership program and team manager training. They have really supported us in this development period and back the need for change. The by-product is going to be more credibility for their respective sporting programs.
Q. So you believe there is substantial support behind the change on their end?
A. Definitely. As we move forward from the initial excitement about the change into the implementation phase, there may be a sense of discomfort about how it is going to unfold. However, support definitely outweighs concern.
Q. What about students… do you have any concerns participation rates may drop if athletes are worried they might not have as much fun without the heavy drinking environment?
A. We do understand there will be some students who will choose not to go due to the loss of the partying aspect, but for every student who was coming just for the partying, there is another student who would rather come just for the sport. We as an organisation accept going backwards before moving forward. I think it will take three to four years to change the students’ perception.
Q. Moving forward to the launch of the Nationals event series, you have spoken about the improvement of sport outcomes for participants being one of your key objectives. What might some of these outcomes include?
A. If the standard of sport you’re playing is more competitive, in a better facility with support from other national sporting organisations, the experience is clearly going to be better. We need to ensure there isn’t a really lop-sided competition. We want to give athletes from our event the best pathway to success in their relevant sport.
Q. Do you believe the new UniSport Nationals will still attract the same number of media and commercial partners?
A. I think it will attract more eventually, as the results will be more meaningful and sport outcomes better. We are looking at attracting TV coverage as soon as possible, along with an increase in social media activity and live streaming.
Q. Going back to the key issue, do you believe these changes will be sufficient in significantly decreasing levels of binge drinking and reshaping the way students perceive the event?
A. We aren’t concerned if students come along and have a few drinks, depending upon their own university’s rules and policies; we are just trying to change the focus. The University of Sydney, one of our top sports universities, attended one of our forums and told us that they will be selecting the best team possible and are considering a zero alcohol tolerance policy in some areas. To see them taking it that seriously is uplifting to us.
Q. How do you think these changes reflect the organisation’s strategic plan through to 2020? Specifically in regards to increasing sport participation and facilitating pathways for high performance athletes?
A. High profile student-athletes have been saying to me, “If I could go to a national event and know the competition was going to be strong, I would be proud to represent my university.” At the same time, we don’t want to discourage sport participation from non-elite student-athletes. Our regional sport programs will take on greater importance, where local intervarsity competitions, head-to-heads, tournaments and a whole raft of sport programs can and will occur. Between UniSport Nationals Div 1 and 2, there remains just as many participation opportunities as there were in the Unigames format if universities enter all teams. Our aim is to actually grow participation moving forward.
Q. Looking to the future, where do you see the UniSport corporate identity heading?
A. These changes will make UniSport a more credible player in the national sporting landscape. The aim is to establish UniSport Nationals Div 1 and 2 as significant events on the national sporting calendar, with strong media coverage and the best student-athletes in the system.