Updated: Apr 15, 2020
UniSport CEO Don Knapp reflects on the organisation's change agenda, priorities for the remainder of the year, and the buzz leading into Nationals Div 1…
Q. At the end of this year you hand over the reins to a new CEO, but before then what are your priorities for UniSport?
A. I just want to ensure that, in as many areas as possible, the organisation is left in a good position. We’ve been driving a major change agenda across our national event program over the past few years, and there are strong indications we are tracking well with this.
A critical piece of work I need to do is a strategic handover document so I can give a comprehensive briefing to my successor. I think a lot about what I haven’t yet completed, and that handover document will reference a number of areas I believe are critical future projects.
Q. With Eden Ritchie Recruitment selected to recruit your successor, what sort of experience and skill sets will they be looking for?
A. There are three areas I see being critical to UniSport:
Member servicing: We have a strong membership of 43 higher education institutions – the largest we’ve ever had. We really need to focus on the benefits and services we deliver to ensure they are current, relevant, and valued, in order to continue building the strength of our membership.
Stakeholder engagement: Our relationships with Sport Australia, the Australian Institute of Sport, and national sporting organisations are getting stronger and stronger, so the ability to navigate within the national sporting landscape and having the know-how to best integrate the university sports sector into the national sporting landscape is critical.
Revenue diversification: Commercially, we need to double the revenue we are generating through corporate partnerships and registrations, and diversify our income streams. When you undertake a cultural shift like we have with Nationals, a temporary reduction in attendance and revenue is to be expected. So certainly, our new CEO is going to need strong business skills to complement our commercial team led by Leith Brooke.
Q. Looking back, was Nationals Div 2 a success? And what is the greatest success that can come from any UniSport event?
A. Well Nationals Div 2, in terms of culture change and behaviour change, was overwhelmingly successful. The amount of change we achieved in one year took me by surprise, and you rarely see such radical change in behaviour. The student-athletes came, they were well outfitted, well-supported by team management, and most importantly - there to play sport. The standard of competition was strong and the sporting facilities were good. We certainly ticked a lot of boxes on what we wanted to achieve.
Attendance was lower than anticipated and there is a financial cost with the numbers being down, but the board, myself, and our staff certainly see this as an investment in the future. Our challenge now is to build those numbers. In the past, approximately 25 per cent of competing student-athletes were first time attendees, but at Nationals Div 2, 63 per cent of competitors were first-time attendees and that’s where the culture change has come from.
The greatest success that can come from our events is positive student experience. We want student-athletes to have a really great time representing their university so sport becomes a valued part of their student experience. We want our events to be memorable, valuable, and to encourage fitness and sport as a lifelong habit.
Q. Earlier in the year you spoke about UniSport’s change in culture, a new event format in the Nationals, and movement away from party culture. What encouraging signs did you see at Nationals Div 2?
A. We had no police reports, no student-athletes were thrown out of nightclubs, no reports were filed for any alcohol-fuelled incidents around the Gold Coast area from police or our members, and we didn’t need to send anyone home for misbehaviour.
Traditionally in the old Unigames format, by the end of the week teams were forfeiting because athletes were tired, they’d given up, and sport was no longer important to them. None of those behavioural patterns occurred at Div 2.
I don’t want to paint too negative a picture on the old Unigames format, because it was an iconic and very successful event for many, many athletes – and a large number of the competitors who went to Unigames were there for sport – but a number of people were there for the party. This time, it appears 99% of the student-athletes at Nationals Div 2 were there to play sport.
Q. Nationals Snow concluded at Mt Buller earlier this month, attracting a record number of Olympians, and talented and accomplished elite student-athletes. Is this evidence of the shift in the standard of competition offered by the Nationals format?
A. It definitely is, and it indicates two things. First, word is getting out to elite athletes on campuses. This is a growing sector with elite student athlete programs increasing substantially over the last four or five years. Word is also getting out we are adopting a more serious attitude toward sport, so we got a good response from snow athletes. The other outcome we are seeing is our work to build relationships with national sporting organisations is effective in that they are encouraging their athletes to participate at UniSport events.
Q. Nationals Div 1 is around the corner and we are on track to see more than 5,000 student-athletes participate on the Gold Coast. What are your hopes for the event and what would you say to student-athletes preparing to represent their university at the event?
A. Hopes for the event are, once again, that sport is a valued part of the higher education student experience; that student-athletes enjoy their sport; and they adopt similar behaviour patterns as participants from Nationals Div 2. We are live streaming broadcast quality footage, and highlights from Nationals Div 1 and 2 will be televised on Fox Sports later this year. Overall we want to grow the reputation of the event. We want Nationals Div 1 and 2 to become an increasingly valued event on the national sporting calendar.
To the students I’d say get ready and work hard, because the competition is a step up!
Q. We’re about to enter the third round of the 2018 Aon Womens Uni 7’s Series this weekend at The University of Queensland. Why is this Series an important contributor to the joint tertiary study and university sport pathway?
A. The Uni 7’s Series serves a number of stakeholders. It’s the talent development pathway for Rugby Australia’s national women’s rugby 7’s program – an Olympic sport and a highly touted international sport. It’s a critical pathway for Rugby Australia which is why they invest significantly into the program.
It’s a chance for member universities to attract elite student-athletes and provide them with dual career education opportunities. They are not only pursuing excellence in their sport, but also pursuing excellence in academia, so it’s extremely valuable to the students and their universities. Statistics and research suggest elite student-athletes have better retention rates, higher graduation rates, and are more employable than non-student-athletes.
For UniSport, it’s a chance to back a national competition which has the effect of not only promoting student-athletes on the national stage, but also promotes member universities on the national stage.
Q. The International Day of University Sport was celebrated on 20 September. What is the significance of this day for Australian universities and their students?
A. We don’t celebrate this day as much as we should in Australia. It’s more effectively celebrated in Europe, but Monash University does a tremendous job at embracing the day and what it stands for. This initiative holds a lot of potential, and we really need to look at investing time and effort in it, so I can’t sit back and claim UniSport is driving a really effective program with the International Day of University Sport. There’s certainly scope to effectively advocate the case for university sport, supported by research and campus initiatives taking place around the world.