Community Clubs

Q&A: Ottawa Sport Council leader Marci Morris on the past, present and future of community sport in Ottawa

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By Dan Plouffe

The Ottawa Sport Council turned 10 years old this year and will soon be holding its annual Ottawa Sport Summit on Saturday, Nov. 18 at the RA Centre.

Titled “The Past, Present, and Future of Community Sport in Ottawa,” the event is “designed to take participants on a journey to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ottawa Sport Council, discuss the current state of community sport in Ottawa, and dive into the future with innovative minds.”

The Ottawa Sport Council was created 10 years ago as an umbrella organization to act as a voice for local sports groups at city hall, and to provide community sport organizations with the tools to offer high-quality and positive experiences in sport.

The Ottawa Sports Pages recently spoke to Marci Morris, who’s served as the OSC’s executive director from the start. Here is that conversation (edited for length and clarity):

This Summit marks 10 years of the Ottawa Sport Council’s existence. What does that milestone mean to you?

We’re pretty excited. It kind of blows my mind away. You never really know when you start an organization where you’ll be in 10 years’ time.

I think, if anything, COVID helped pull us together as a sector. And that almost made us more relevant, because we created strong bonds through that.

We’ve really been able to hone in on the best way to support the community through education, advocacy and philanthropy. And I don’t see that that will ever change because I think those are the things that are so needed.

I know a lot of people don’t kind of figure out what their organization’s purpose is for a while and I feel very lucky that we were able to drill that down pretty well off the bat.

And I feel that every time we do one of these Summits, every time we deliver things, it seems to be so relevant, and so needed.

I look back and I say, ‘Wow, 10 years is a lot,’ and all we can hope is that we have another 10 and many more years and become a staple of the community.

Globally speaking, what would you say is different and what’s the same about the Ottawa sports community over the past 10 years?

The thing that’s the same is that so much of the Ottawa community sports scene is run by volunteers. I would say, on the flip side, the difference is it’s getting tougher and tougher and tougher for those volunteers.

Some organizations are struggling with their ability to deliver programs because of the drain on volunteers.

I think that has happened because of a few things. Number one, COVID had a huge impact on them. But I think the other thing with it is the expectations that we have with the volunteers as sport evolves and we get into things like concussion management and safe sport and improving inclusivity and equity and diversity. They’re all phenomenal initiatives, but we’re asking more and more and more of a volunteer.

I would say the thing that is changing is that there such a push on the organizations that are volunteer-run that some of them are just finding it very, very tough to keep up and to keep going.

A bit of a solution can be to add paid staff to organizations. Generally, the quality of programs rises when that happens, but so do participation fees. What are your thoughts on where this should go in the future? Is it more of a return to the traditional volunteer-driven model, more paid staff, or a mix?

I think we have to reimagine the way that we deliver sport. I don’t think the model of community sport is ever going to change. I think it’s always going to be volunteer-driven. But I think that we have to reimagine the role of volunteer.

Whether that’s not having just a single coach, instead having a coaching team, so that we’re dividing volunteer roles into more sizable chunks. In the past, if somebody were to say, ‘I can coach or I can do this for a month,’ people would have said, ‘No, I’m sorry, we need you for the entire season.’ We have to start reimagining that, and we have to start saying, ‘OK, how could we build this out, to use more people and make it more accessible for people to be able to volunteer?’

I think the other thing that we have to be doing as a sector is communicating and tapping into other sectors. For example, from a governance perspective, one of the things that people struggle with is finding board members who might have financial expertise. I think we need to be talking to the legal sector, we need to be talking to the financial sector and we need to be saying, ‘You know, there’s a volunteer role for you here.’ And looking at the finances of a community sport organization, it’s not a hugely complex task, and yet, your expertise could go so far.’ Looking at recruitment from different areas is something that we’re going to have to start looking at.

I also think we’re going to have to start looking at ensuring that sport is accessible and diverse. For example, how do we include new Canadians in the volunteering? What can we can be doing to enable them to be able to volunteer as well? I think we have to look at that whole volunteer piece in a different way than we’ve looked at it before and we have to do things differently.

In terms of the changes, a positive change is that we are making sport more diverse and inclusive and accessible. I don’t just want to highlight the negative, I want to highlight the positive. I look at how many of these existing organizations are now saying, ‘We have to do something about this. We need a program for new Canadians or we need a program for athletes with a developmental or physical disability, and we need to include everybody.’ I think that’s a huge change and a really big step forward from 10 years ago.

Have you seen a lot of that progress made on inclusion in sport post-COVID in particular?

I think what happened is that COVID forced everybody, and it gave them the time, to be introspective. A lot of community sport organizations looked at what they were doing, looked at what their mandate was, and said ‘Should we be changing that? And should we be doing something different?’

In a lot of cases, the sector came together and created strong partnerships. I think that was a real positive of COVID because people actually had the time to sit back and plan and breathe, as opposed to just roll out season after season after season.

In the event details for this year’s Sport Summit, it notes that minimal government funding continues to create financial challenges for community sport. How have you seen that play out and is that a continued area of advocacy for the Council?

Yes, especially in specific areas. For example, there’s so much focus at the federal level to implement things for national sporting organizations, and they’re receiving that funding for those specific athletes, but none of that funding is going down to community sport. So, if we’re going to continue to ask community sport to take on these very important topics, then we have to start thinking about that funding model as well.

There are a number of organizations, including Jumpstart, that are saying, ‘What are we doing to empower that local community to make sure that we’re as accessible, diverse and safe as possible?’

That’s where I see one of the huge funding gaps is not necessarily to put people into the field of play, but all of the other things that go around it. For example, the implementation of all the concussion protocols – again, absolutely necessary, but that funding isn’t necessarily there.

For safe sport, is it funding to hire a safe sport officer in clubs who’s going to help shepherd them through that process? And if we do want to make sport as accessible and inclusive as possible, where are the subsidies that we’re providing for people who might not be able to pay to participate?

That’s where I really see the funding shortfall. We’re asking people to take on all these very important new initiatives, but we’re not equipping them either with the people, time, resources or funding.

The Council also noted that overall sport participation is up in the past 10 years, for women especially. Despite the challenges that we’ve gone through, what does that say about people’s enthusiasm for sport?

I think it’s a double-edged sword. Number one, we definitely have increasing participation, which is wonderful. However, during the pandemic, we really saw that participation shift.

Although we might be up in overall numbers, I think that you kind of have to look at what happened in specific areas. If you looked at what happened during COVID, for example, in basketball, where there were no basketball gyms available – because they’re reliant on schools and school gyms were closed – so some of the basketball organizations were renting dome space, which was farther out of the city core, and many people who would be able to walk to the gym couldn’t get there anymore, and all of a sudden the price increased.

Yes, overall participation is up, which is a wonderful thing. However, I think we have to dig deeper into the numbers to see if we are up in all categories and what that means.

I do think we’ve seen this rebound after COVID. I think that what COVID showed us was the importance of physical activity and participation in sport for both your physical and your mental health. And I think that the lack of organized sport during COVID really proved that.

We need to understand how to ensure that we are continuing to make sport accessible for all. That is why community sport is so important, because that’s the starting point for so many people.

I’m sure it can be a tough slog sometimes when you’re dealing with challenging issues like this frequently, but are there moments that stick out that kind of really fuel you? When you see the power of community sport and sort of remind you why you want to be involved?

Every year when we get our applications for the Ottawa Sport Council Foundation Community Opportunity Grant, I am blown away.

Organizations that are thinking about what their role is in making sure that their sport is available to everybody. I just love reading about what people in our community want to do, because they feel that it’s the right thing to do.

And I love how our community looks out for each other and how everyone really understands how sport is a community builder, because that’s what the Sport Council is about – building our community through sport. That to me has always been the highlight, I think will always continue to be the highlight.

What is different and what is the same about the upcoming Summit compared to others?

The one thing that everybody tells us every single year that they love the most about the Sport Summit is the opportunity to network and to learn from their peers. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, people are always like, ‘Yeah, the topic was great, but I loved talking to so-and-so, you know, I never get to talk to Johnny from hockey, but I got to meet them and I got some solutions.’ So that’s the same and we will always have that.

What’s different, which I don’t think we’ve ever done before, is look to the future. What are the future innovations that we could be using to support community sport and think out of the box?

There’s going to be two sections on that. Part of the networking is going to be about asking all of our members, what do you think are the big ideas? What do you think could really help you?

And we’ll be having a speaker who’s going to be talking about how to use artificial intelligence to basically cut down on some of those things volunteer have to do. How could we be using AI to make your organization run smoother? And what are the thoughts around that? What kind of ideas can we generate around that?

At the end of the day, if we can take away some of that workload, so that people could spend more of their time putting people into the field of play, then we are really helping out our organization.

Lastly, is there a message you’d like to share with everyone who’s been involved with the Sport Council for the past decade?

Yes. I want to underline how thankful we are for everybody’s participation and enthusiasm and passion for community sport, and pulling together as a sector and looking out for the community. We never, ever could have done this without all the input from our members. I’m always blown away – every time we ask people if they’ll participate in a consultation, if they’ll just share their ideas with us or if they’ll review material, no one ever says no.

The passion that people have, not only for their own sport, but for the community as a whole and the importance of community sport – I am just so thankful for it, because I think that collectively, we are making the city of Ottawa a better place.

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