The AFL and NRL say next weekend’s games will take place behind closed doors. (AAP: Michael Dodge/Dean Lewins)
The coronavirus outbreak has led to a great deal of uncertainty about the 2020 sporting calendar, with some sports in Australia already cancelling games.
Cricket Australia cancelled the final round of the Sheffield Shield with the final in doubt, the Chappell-Hadlee trophy was called off and Australia Women’s tour of South Africa was scrapped.
The ODI cricket series between New Zealand and Australia was postponed after one game. (AAP: Dean Lewins )
Athletics Australia axed the Australian Junior Track and Field Championships, while the senior championships have been postponed.
The World Surf League cancelled all events through to the end of March, while internationally, many sporting bodies have cancelled or postponed their seasons.
The AFL and NRL have announced that next weekend’s games will take place behind closed doors, with the AFLW already taking that step this past weekend.
The A-League and W-League will also continue to be played in empty stadiums.
How the various seasons will progress remains unclear.
The AFL remains committed to a 198-game season, with contingencies in place for an expected hiatus at some point in the season as a result of COVID-19.
The Super Rugby season has been suspended, while the NRL has warned the virus is rugby league’s greatest-ever challenge.
But on top of the uncertainty around how the seasons will play out, there are other concerns for clubs and leagues.
Clubs facing a huge financial impact
The most immediate is the financial implications of a crowd-less season, or no season at all.
Sporting codes are facing the real prospect of playing in front of even smaller crowds that this. (AAP: David Hunt)
Estimates suggest AFL clubs will average a loss of $1 million per home game, while NRL faces the prospect of losing $20 million if a shutout lasts a month.
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How the two leagues deal with that financial burden remains to be seen — the NRL has said players could be forced to take pay cuts — but the issue could be further complicated by members.
One caller to ABC Perth’s Sports Talk program said he would have no problem with his AFL North Melbourne membership being treated as a donation, while another listener texted she would want her money back if the season was a lockout.
West Coast is one of the AFL’s richest clubs, recording an $8 million profit last year from $88 million in revenue. Of that revenue, $26 million came from memberships.
Fremantle recorded a $1.6 million loss in 2019 but still raked in $57 million in revenue, with $18.5 million from memberships.
If clubs were forced to refund members on top of losing matchday revenue, it would place some under enormous financial strain, and those with weaker balance sheets would be forced to ask for assistance from the AFL.
These issues will be part of ongoing discussions between the AFL and NRL and their clubs.
A season with an asterisk attached
Despite attempts to complete a full season in a compressed time frame, there is the very real possibility of an extended shutdown making that unachievable.
Already the AFL and the International Cricket Council are in discussions about the AFL grand final being played in late October, just before the start of the men’s T20 World Cup.
There is meant to be a restriction period around the pitches at all grounds being used for the tournament, so some middle ground will need to be reached.
Hosting the AFL decider at a ground other than the MCG isn’t really an option, as most of the bigger arenas will face the same restriction issue.
There is still much to play out on the domestic sporting front with relation to coronavirus, but it is clear this will be a season with an asterisk attached, and one which will be marked in annals of history.