I am not Australian, nor have I ever lived in Australia.
I am British, but I have lived and worked in other countries. One where I learned that football did not have a round ball, and another where hockey meant ice hockey.
As a child I grew up playing, supporting and watching football, but in my teens, I focused on rugby and played for the school and county. In my 20s, I became more interested in running, and then later it was cycling.
The latter not just as keeping healthy but for getting me to work. Yes, I do now have pieces of metal in my body from breaking bones due to cycling accidents.
I became interested in how sports were not just played, but how they were run, and what did they mean for people. One aspect of this was how sport played at a professional level was attached to the sport at the non-professional level.
At the latter, the emphasis is the sport as a social event between the players, spectators and administrators. The former has the social aspect, but the financial aspect is far more important.
It is noticeable how the professional sector of a sport could be said to have gone from the ‘cherry on the cake’ of the sport, to where it is the dominant factor of a sport, that it influences or controls what a sport is. One could say that we see this in how we look at sports as pyramids, with the top being the professional game and the lower levels strata to go through to reach the top.
In recent weeks and months, this has become very obvious in how sports have reacted to COVID-19. Some have commented on how COVID-19 is an existential threat to a sport, but what they have overlooked is that this threat is more of a threat to the professional game than the sport in general.
Sports at the grassroots will survive COVID-19.
For the professional entity of a sport, COVID-19 is an existential threat to them in their current form. It is interesting that these sports have used their dominance to stop sports at the grassroots level, yet kept the professional level ongoing, although they have accepted some changes.
Some did not have much choice, for example Rugby Australia (RA) due to its internationalism was doomed once each country developed different rules on how to deal with COVID-19, one rule for most was banning foreign travel. This impacted on the NRL and A-League to a lesser extent. The AFL totally escaped.
In one respect this closure helped RA. Over the subsequent days and weeks, it has been able to watch as governments – federal and state – have slowly altered how they deal with COVID-19. It led them recently to propose starting an All-Australian professional competition with the four Super Rugby teams and the Western Force.
Now they may be stymied, and the reason also will have a large impact on the other sports. The governments are talking of necessary and unnecessary travel. If professional sports are deemed to be unnecessary users of interstate travel, this will have a huge impact on them.
RA would either have to postpone the start of the competition or organise it to occur in one location with all the teams training and playing in that location for a number of weeks.
The A-League would have to stop.
The NRL could try to exist by getting the non-NSW teams to set up in NSW and play their matches at grounds in NSW for a few weeks.
The AFL could do the same, except it would all happen in Victoria.
An alternative to both the AFL and NRL would be to regionalise, and so the NRL teams in NSW would play each other and the non-NSW teams would be left to organise their own solutions.
The AFL could do the same, but it would be in Victoria.
The AFL is in a stronger position than the other codes as it has more financial reserves. This is one reason why the NRL’s Peter V’landys reacted as he did in wanting money from the government. This is not to deny that over time the AFL will be challenged financially, and this is one reason why they decided to start the season with some changes.
As businesses, these professional sports will seek to benefit from governments actions, and they will also seek more focused aid from governments. This will either allow them to live through COVID-19 with no longer-term effects or be challenged to an extent that leads them to alter far more.
What should not be forgotten is that these sport in the wider context will survive. The professional teams, for most of the sports, were growths from teams that were amateur. This is why they are who they are, and why we support and relate to them in the way we do.