The chickens they are a-roosting. Covid-19 has claimed many things in its dastardly travails – lives, jobs, a common sense of security – and it might well add Australian sport to its list of casualties. Not in the sense that it is gone. But the chronology of the way top-level sport is administered in this country will reveal it as having two identities: one pre-coronavirus, the other post-coronavirus. In this sense the crisis might in time be seen as a blessing in disguise. When the virus reached Australia and paused life as we knew it, it swept through sport in the shape of a grim reaper with scythe in one hand and spotlight in the other.
Spotting the difference between mismanagement and lavish government might be an exercise in futility. But if some Australian sporting organisations haven’t exactly been guilty of the former, the roadkill left in the coronavirus’s wake suggests the latter has been rife and unchecked in certain quarters. Until now. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
For too long Australian sport has been judged, feted even, by its harvest: spiralling broadcast deals and player wages, and the subsequent benefits that high revenues bring. Now is the time to dig deeper and look at those seeds. Nobody saw Covid-19 coming, and nobody could rightly have prepared for the damage it would cause. But what the pandemic has done is lift the hood on Australian sport; the chassis might be a Bentley, but the engine powering it is somewhere between a Holden and a Victa. We thought sport in Australia was rich, but in reality it’s been living pay cheque to pay cheque. And now the rainy day has arrived.
The times of coronavirus have already claimed two high-profile scalps: Todd Greenberg, the chief executive of the NRL, and his equivalent at Rugby Australia, Raelene Castle. The picture is barely brighter elsewhere. Cricket Australia, which presided over a sport that yielded almost $500m in revenue last financial year, is virtually broke. “It was certainly plausible that our cash and investments could track down to zero at the end of August, absolutely,” CA chief executive Kevin Roberts says. Little wonder Allan Border wondered last week where all the money had gone when in 2016 Cricket Australia sat proudly on $199m in cash reserves.
Football is one sport long thought to be living beyond its means. Fox Sports was already losing money hand over fist by broadcasting the A-League and W-League. But the fight FFA has on its hands to keep its domestic competitions viable has been accelerated by Covid-19, with the broadcaster recently refusing to pay a $12m rights fee instalment. Netball Australia, having watched its game grow over the past few seasons, is now counting the cost of lost sponsorship dollars and the loss of momentum that will follow. The AFL, like the rest, has laid off staff, cut player wages and pruned costs to stay afloat. But while tomorrow wouldn’t be soon enough for the code to resume competition, it has assets and half a billion dollars of bank-funded credit. Where the NRL’s manoeuvring to return to the playing field has bordered on desperate, the AFL’s relative comfort is reflected in its more measured approach.
And the NRL is desperate. Greenberg has become the poster boy of rugby league’s failure, the scapegoat the NRL had to have as a marker point to a brighter future. But while the departed chief executive’s extravagant spending might have turned a pot of gold into dust, the clubs themselves must accept their share of culpability. As former Blues Origin coach Laurie Daley said: “I think there has been a lot of wastage in rugby league. If you get a $10m grant, which they won’t going forward, I believe if you want to sack a player or coach that should come off your grant.”
And now, as perhaps it always has been, it’s all about the money. The jostling between broadcasters and ruling bodies is on in earnest. Cricket Australia is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, arguing reasonably that if the coming summer is played in its entirety then their payments under the $1.18bn rights deal should not be reduced. But with Foxtel and Seven West Media in the grips of their own financial crises, squeezing blood out of stones won’t serve the game in any shape or form. Where FFA and Rugby Australia end up on their next broadcast deals is anyone’s guess. In striking a deal ahead of the 28 May resumption of the NRL season, Nine successfully argued crowd-less games were detrimental to the viewing experience. On these lines agreements will be reached.
Australia is not alone in sport suffering as a result of Covid-19. But where global competitions like the NBA and Premier League have managed to somewhat cushion the blow, Australia’s major codes have been picked up and shaken silly by this once-in-a-lifetime event. Each will live on but under the glare of the spotlight it is all change from here. Organisations will be forced to reinvent the way they do business, to administer risk management and matters of governance as if their survival depends on it. That’s because it does.