The AFL grand final is synonymous with the MCG in late September but could this year be different? (AAP: David Crosling)
A crowded house with two parents trying to work while restless kids beg to be taken to a playground they have been told a hundred times is now closed.
An awkwardly spaced office or factory floor; a coffee shop window where you are not quite sure whether you’re supposed to make eye contact with fellow customers from your 1.5-metre vantage point.
And this is not to mention the far more confronting toll taken by COVID-19 in death and illness.
The big and the small — sing along — “We’re all in this together”.
This now includes some potentially uncomfortable bed mates: the grand poohbahs of Australia’s competing professional sports.
The first crumbs on the bed linen were apparent this week when the hypothetical issue of stadium availability in the event of an elongated AFL season was raised.
Over decades the AFL has used its vast revenue-raising spectator appeal to encroach on cricket’s seasonal boundaries, advocate the replacement of natural turf pitches with drop-ins while strategically planting announcements and events in the sunny months to dominate the media agenda.
Yet the usually all-powerful AFL could find itself in a rare moment of negotiating weakness should it require access to stadiums booked by cricket in order to maximise now precious revenue.
If the AFL is playing late in the year, they may run into problems with stadium hire amid events such as an Australia-India Test series. (AP: Rick Rycroft)
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Cricket has, at least for now, the T20 World Cup, a lucrative Test series against India and the start of the Big Bash League to accommodate, all events that could minimise its losses.
The reaction of the AFL’s chief executive officer Gillon McLachlan to suggestions his game could be locked out of stadiums was in the spirit of the times: “I hope in the end this is bigger than all of that and I’ve been talking to other sports on other fronts, we will all work together …”.
AFL tweet: There are no plans to make the 2020 AFL Premiership season shorter, even if the start is further delayed.
The coffee sprayed from snorting noses upon hearing this sentiment belonged to the organisers of Australia’s failed 2018/2022 World Cup bid who felt they were blocked at every turn by the AFL over stadium availability and FIFA’s requirement that rival sports pause their seasons.
(An exception will be then-FFA chief executive Ben Buckley who has returned to the AFL as chairman of North Melbourne and had other matters, including suggestions his team would be shipped to Tasmania, on his plate this week).
Yes these are extraordinary times and, as the AFL-friendly Melbourne sports media was quick to suggest, it might be a matter of “community interest” (i.e. “The AFL owns this town!”) that dictates what is played where should cricket and footy seasons collide.
But seeing Australia’s most voracious sporting shark suddenly acting like just another goldfish in the bowl was, at the very least, a cause for some mirth among those who had felt its bite.
Wisely, Cricket Australia chief executive Kevin Roberts rose above the fray suggesting his organisation would cooperate with the AFL if it needed a venue for a December grand final.
Why start a battle with a local rival to protect cricket games that, given the continued spread of the pernicious virus, might very well be cancelled or postponed?
No doubt those ecumenical sports fans who don’t like hearing about “code wars” will have blanched at the mere suggestion of confrontation during the coronavirus pandemic having naively assumed the games they love should be able to get along just fine.
But behind the scenes the rivalry between Australian sports has only intensified over the years, whether that was for so-called “first choice” athletes, stadium access/configuration or, at a community level, increasingly crowded local playing fields.
The pandemic has merely highlighted what the savviest administrators have long understood — four major professional football codes cannot continue to expand revenue and support bases in a small market at their current rate; even less so now Fox Sports is under duress and sponsorship dollars are diminishing.
This has meant decisions have often been made not only in the best interests of a particular code, but as a strategic buffer against rivals — the essence of the very real code wars.
According to a well-worn story, when the Socceroos were eliminated from World Cup qualifying (before they eventually broke through in 2006), AFL executives would open a bottle of champagne.
The AFL has always denied this. But there was palpable relief at AFL headquarters that the game they saw as their greatest potential rival did not get the reputational boost of a World Cup campaign.
The battle for young sporting talent — male and female — between sports only adds to the perception of “code wars” in Australia.
(AAP: David Mariuz)
Similarly there is a strong belief the inception of the AFLW was accelerated not because AFL executives had a sudden realisation of the pent-up demand for female participation, but because they coveted football’s large pool of young female participants.
This is not to vilify the AFL for its commercial aggression. On the contrary, the league has attained its strong position through brilliant lobbying, excellent strategic planning and hard-headed business practice.
NRL executives would often lament the AFL’s domination of government funding for stadiums and other projects citing all sorts of anti-league conspiracy theories.
The AFL, led by Gillon McLachlan, is known for its strong lobbying of governments.
(AAP: Mick Tsikas, file photo)
But it was the relatively disorganised and hopelessly factionalised NRL’s failure to replicate the AFL’s intensive lobbying at all levels of government that left the southern game in such a powerful position.
Consequently it will be intriguing to see how much weight the current platitudes about “working together” and a “collegial approach” carry when sport resumes in what will be an even more competitive economic environment.
Will these unusual bedfellows share the doona or are we about to see one almighty pillow fight?
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