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Opinion

What’s more important: Public health or footy?

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Expert
15th March, 2020
254
3015 Reads

The spread of the COVID-19 virus is a declared pandemic, having massive worldwide impacts that go well past sport. It’s a virus that doesn’t care about borders, sports or balance sheets.

Right now, there’s no vaccine or cure and from latest reporting it seems the most likely candidates to pass it on are people with no obvious symptoms. All the advice we’ve been getting is that numbers of infected people can jump rapidly unless precautions are taken.

In light of this, it was an incredibly poor decision to continue to play NRL Round 1 in front of crowds and then to continue to play at all, especially following the advice we have all received about avoiding large gatherings.

We’re all being asked to take care of ourselves and each other and for mine, making the players continue to play is the very definition of creating an unsafe work environment.

If there was a serious Rugby League Players Association out there, you’d expect they’d be more than vocal on behalf of their cohort. But the RLPA hasn’t posted a news item on their website since January and their last media release was about their annual general meeting.

Being a professional sport doesn’t grant you immunity from COVID-19 and some of the comments I’ve seen from administrators and punters alike have been mind-bogglingly naive at best.

Australian Rugby League Commission chair Peter V’landys couldn’t help himself whenever someone put a mic in front of him this weekend, coming up with gems like “There are no cases of the virus in the area and I don’t think it should be blanket policy when it comes to this” when pushing the case for Friday’s North Queensland versus Brisbane game to go ahead with a crowd.

Incoming ARLC chairman Peter V’Landys.

(Mark Evans/Getty Images)

He followed that up on Saturday with a request for Federal government cash though the media. “In this situation, the government has to assist us if things go pear-shaped. Rugby league is a crucial part of Australian society. It’s our relaxation. It’s our escape.

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“We are in battle-gear ready to go. This is an extraordinary scenario for rugby league and I will do whatever I need to do.”

How about protecting your players and fans?

When the equine influenza outbreak hit Australia’s horse racing industry in 2007, V’landys was able to get $235 million out of the federal government and this is being referred to many times over as rugby league tries to position itself at the from of the sporting welfare queue.

But this time around, everyone is affected. The AFL will lose millions. Cricket will lose millions. Horse racing will lose millions again. Other smaller leagues are going to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars and be in genuine existential peril.

And that’s not to even mention local clubs of all sports, who often run month to month, wondering how the hell they’re going to make it through season 2020.

Just a few weeks ago the NRL was boasting of a $30 million profit in 2019, after a $45 million profit the year before. If the game was in such a fantastic financial situation, why go cap in hand to the government for a lifeline?

Make no mistake – the entire rugby league year is at risk right now, the whole NRL regular season and finals, State of Origin, and the end of year Kangaroo tour of England.

NSW Blues

Origin might be cancelled. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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So all bluster and bullshit aside – what kind of state are NRL clubs in right now? Let’s look at some numbers publicly reported by NRL clubs (and very helpfully compiled by the wonderful @SportsIndustry on Twitter).

In 2019, Penrith Panthers made $2.13 million from memberships and ticket sales and just over $1 million from merchandise. Those revenue streams would be in serious trouble.

But Panthers also took almost $64 million in gaming revenue and they have a lot of assets. They’re robust enough to handle a pretty big whack.

Gaming revenue is a massive part of almost every NRL club and it looks like that’s what might keep New South Wales clubs in particular alive.

A team like Cronulla, though, relies on the annual NRL $13 million funding distribution to keep things moving along. In 2019 the Sharks got $5.6 million in sponsorship, and $7.6 million from gaming.

They only sold $360,000 worth of merchandise and reported an overall loss of about $3.2 million. Can they withstand a season with no crowds or no play at all? It’s not looking so great.

The NRL gives every club about $13 million dividend each year, drawn from broadcast cash, income from State of Origin, tickets, sponsorship, merchandise, all of it.

State of Origin is a key part of annual revenue and as it stands we’ve got no way of knowing if it will go ahead, how it will go ahead or where it will go ahead. That’s the grey area all sports are now operating in.

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Is it hysterical to get into thinking this way? No – this is the new normal.

Chad Townsend offloads the ball.

Chad Townsend of the Sharks (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

No one has any idea how long this COVID-19 pandemic will last, how much more or less dangerous the virus may get, how many more people are going to get infected, and how badly they’ll be affected. There’s no vaccine expected until some time in 2021 (hopefully sooner!) so this is going to be our reality for a whole to come.

Flu season in Australia peaks in May, and that’s when COVID-19 is supposed to as well. This isn’t going away and it’s only a matter of time before a player tests positive or a club has a swathe of players and officials affected and that’ll be that for season 2020.

If you’ve spent cash on a membership, tickets, travel to a game, magic round or whatever, you’d better make your peace that the money is likely gone. If you’re lucky enough to have some spare coin, maybe 2020 is the year to buy a club membership and give some support.

It’s certainly an unprecedented time and things are changing daily, but a lot of people won’t forget how some folks’ first reaction was to cover their arse rather than make strong decisions for the health of the fans and the players.