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Opinion

How well are the football codes placed to bounce back from COVID-19?

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Roar Guru
18th March, 2020
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2477 Reads

The COVID-19 virus that has now become a global pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works of every one of Australia’s sporting codes and the impacts will be felt both this season and in seasons to come.

To work out who’s best placed to recover from the storm, I’ve put together a list of bullet points outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each of Australia’s football codes. I’ll use these to draw a few of my own conclusions at the end.

AFL

Strengths
• Largest crowds in Australia and fourth largest in the world of any professional sports league
• 50 per cent of revenue generated by crowds and memberships
• Significant membership numbers
• High participation rate
• High TV viewership

AFL generic

(AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

Weaknesses
• Many clubs reliant on pokie revenue
• Expansion clubs draining resources
• Low TV viewership in New South Wales and Queensland
• No international interest
• Limited prospects for expansion
• Largest player and staff lists

Rugby league

Strengths
• Highest TV audience of any code
• Good membership numbers
• Second highest crowd averages

Weaknesses
• Just 30 per cent of revenue generated by crowds and memberships
• Low and declining participation numbers
• Heavily reliant on TV revenue
• Many clubs reliant on pokie revenue
• No clubs in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania or the Northern Territory
• Limited interest beyond New South Wales and Queensland
• Limited prospects for expansion
• ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys has cost the code a lot of political capital

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NRL generic

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Rugby union

Strengths
• Competition is international
• Wallabies generate good publicity when playing well
• Sport has an Olympic presence

Weaknesses
• Competition suspended
• Administration of the sport is the worst in Australia (complete omni-shambles)
• No free-to-air presence
• Low crowds
• Competition splitting apart internationally
• Lowest participation rate of any code
• Only four teams in Australia
• No teams in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania or the Northern Territory
• Expansion out of the question
• No national competition
• Club rugby teams unlikely to make jump to professional competition
• Israel Folau fiasco

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Football

Strengths
• Highest participation rate of any code (two million)
• Huge registered player base that can provide source of fees
• Scope for fan ownership of clubs
• Highest digital and streaming engagement of any code
• Youngest fan-base of any code
• Even level of support nationwide
• Clubs not reliant on pokie revenue
• Socceroos and Matildas are highly popular
• World Cup boosts participation and FFA finances every time it is held
• Highest potential for expansion of any code
• Biggest potential for global audience growth of any code
• Respectable crowds by international standards

Weaknesses
• Low crowds by Australian standards
• Low memberships
• Poor linear TV ratings
• Only one match on free-to-air per round
• Competition from foreign leagues for both players and fans
• Club owners can be fickle
• Weak support from government
• Hostile media
• Old Soccer vs New Football has created a great schism
• Football pyramid not connected through promotion/relegation
• Oversized stadiums are a drag on club finances and reduce interest from fans

Empty seats at the A-League.

(Albert Perez/Getty Images)

The financial hit that all of these competitions will take due to the virus will be huge and the effects are going to be felt for years to come. Continuing with matches to keep broadcast revenue coming in is the only way the codes have to soften the blow.

While the AFL, NRL and A-League all have plans to play behind closed doors, there is pressure from doctors in Western Australia, who are pushing for WA to ban visitors from other states, which would make a national competition impossible if others follow. There have already been similar calls for Tasmania to do the same. This means that playing games in one location will be the only way to have any certainty about being able to complete the season.

If teams are placed in lockdown and players aren’t allowed out into the community there would be very low risk of any of them getting infected. So it is a plausible solution and non-playing teams can provide a small crowd.

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But even if seasons can be completed, the responses of the codes have already shown all sorts of cracks in their financial situations and this could sting them going forward. When the next set of broadcast negotiations come up, they will be in a weak position, especially with declining viewership on both free-to-air and pay TV as well as declining crowds. Then there’s declining advertising revenue from sponsors who might still be reeling from the impact of the virus.

Empty seats at the MCG

(Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

The only way for future TV deals is down. The codes have built themselves on a gravy train of TV revenue and now that gravy train is coming to a stop. The virus will simply hasten the process.

The crowd, membership and TV viewership figures for the AFL and NRL will give these competitions a future, but they might have to make painful decisions to downsize and cut wages. On the negative side, they attract only limited interest outside of their heartlands and have little scope for expansion, which makes for poor prospects for growth. Also, in the case of the NRL, the press conference given by Peter V’landys calling for a government bailout could really come back to hurt them.

The A-League might manage to struggle through, or it might fold. But even if it does the sport still has enough going for it to re-invent itself, if it has to. With a massive registered player base, the youngest fan-base of any code, the highest digital and streaming engagement of any code and a fairly even level of support nationwide, the A-League has real potential for future growth. This will place it in good stead in negotiations with potential streaming partners.

As for Super Rugby, it’s just too far gone to save. It has so many problems facing it that it’s game over for them.

But none of the codes have really been shown in a good light by all of this. The only thing that’s certain is that it will be a turbulent time for the codes and their constituent clubs as well as for fans.

We live in interesting times.

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