In the end the AFL came to its senses. In arriving at a decision many hoped might have been made last week, league bosses suspended the men’s competition until 31 May and scrapped the AFLW season mid-finals, with no premiership to be awarded.
The best-case scenario, that the AFL competition resumes from 1 June, is bad enough for the code. The real possibility, that measures taken to limit the spread of Covid-19 will push that date back further or wipe out the entire season, could be disastrous.
“To say this is the most serious threat to our game in 100 years is an understatement,” AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said on Sunday. “The AFL industry is facing its biggest financial crisis in our history. Our industry provides livelihoods for thousands and thousands of people but our key focus at the moment – like every organisation in the country – is to do everything that needs to be done to help slow the spread of this virus and to keep people as healthy as possible.”
The AFL has a future fund of over $120m at its disposal to cushion the blow. Industry estimates put the figure needed to absorb the damage caused by the coronavirus crisi at five times this figure at least.
The knock-on effects will be immense and far reaching. Poorer clubs will struggle to make ends meet, the shape of the AFLW competition will no doubt be impacted and this will all leave state leagues and grassroots footy vulnerable.
So now the AFL goes into damage control. It will spend the coming days consulting with clubs on methods of best practice with regards to health and cost cutting. Pay cuts will be routine, jobs might be lost, livelihoods of lower earners threatened.
“Our focus over the coming days is working with the clubs to embed medical protocols, to finalise the operating model during the temporary suspension period and to work with our funding partners to secure a line of credit to fund cash falls across the industry, while allowing the best chance to a return to football matches,” McLachlan said.
With state borders closing and non-essential travel banned, conducting a national sporting competition became untenable. “It was the right decision to start the season, and clearly it is now the right decision to stop. That is why we have acted immediately to take this step to play our role in the community and to protect the long-term future of our game,” McLachlan said.
Amid the uncertainty, the AFL remains committed to squeezing out a 17-round season if, and when, organised sport gets the green light to resume. But, with politicians talking about containment measures remaining in place for six months or longer, realism is becoming the default setting.
Jeff Kennett, the Hawthorn president, is already looking towards next year. “We at Hawthorn support the decision and our focus must be on surviving to be able to play a full season in 2021,” Kennett said.
For better or worse round one did take place, serving at the very least to satisfy our curiosity for post-apocalyptic footy. It was as if the game had landed a leading role in a sequel to The Omega Man. Goals kicked into empty stands, acts of brilliance almost unacknowledged, a player celebrating his 200th game chaired off the ground to near silence. The only things missing were zombies and tumbleweed.
Players looked to be giving their all. In fact, with shorter quarters and longer intervals, it could be argued their intensity was cracked up a notch. Scoring levels, not far off totals reached in round one 2019, would suggest this was the case.
Coaches might be used to telling their troops to play like there’s no tomorrow; this time they meant it. But without the backdrop of an audience, without the audio and visual boost that fans afford live sport, the action looked flat at times, as if the players were acting out a training drill that somehow had four premiership points attached.
The conclusion drawn from round one seems in accord with other sports around the world: fans who attend games might be spectators, but bystanders they are not. In some ways they are as pivotal to the live experience as the players themselves. You can have Vegemite on toast without the butter, but it’s a pale imitation of the real thing.
The players themselves recognised this. All the talk in changing rooms was about “making our own noise” and “generating our own energy”. They needed to. When Jake Stringer drilled a major from outside 50 against Fremantle at Marvel Stadium, he was greeted with the sound of nothingness, save for the back-slapping and whooping of his teammates.
When Sydney’s Tom Papley dribbled one home from the pocket at Adelaide Oval, he wheeled around, left arm extended horizontally, in anticipation of high-fives from fans at the fence that would normally follow such wizardry. But, again, there was nothing.
The fans were watching, just from home. And they were watching in enormous numbers. More than 1.1m people in the capital cities and on Pay TV tuned into Thursday night’s clash between Richmond and Carlton, the highest number for a season opener in four years. Social media was awash with pictures and videos of supporters in team colours, social distancing nowhere to be seen, posts adorned with hashtags that capture the zeitgeist of sport’s place in these troubling times: #wearewatching, #footyathome.
Broadcasters were thinking on their feet. With the hum of the gathered masses nowhere to be heard, effect mics were instead deployed to pick up the sounds of the game: the marshalling, directing, the urging and the chitter chatter that conduct the flow of the game. Intermittently, commentators would be silent for extended periods so viewers could watch and listen, encumbered by the descriptive intrusion of a third party. Richie Benaud would be proud. These were blissful moments that should become de rigueur for AFL broadcasts, even after the scourge of the coronavirus has been conquered and stands are once again filled.
There will be those who opine that, by commencing a season in the grips of a global health crisis, the AFL was guilty of a gross act of social irresponsibility, waving a two-fingered salute to those suffering, and to those actually trying to do something about Covid-19. But that criticism is wide of the mark. In pulling stumps now, the AFL has shown it is taking the threat seriously.
The only certainty right now is that the immediate future of the AFL, and society as a whole, is up in the air. At least AFL fans got one round in. For a few fleeting days, it was the kind of distraction, the kind of therapy, we needed.