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The Roar



It's OK to be the most important of the least important things

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24th March, 2020

The AFL’s doomed decision to proceed with the 2020 season – albeit to empty, echoing stadiums – was cheered, condemned and ultimately curtailed.

Despite the criticism from some quarters, the ‘traditional’ (and in this age of 280 characters or fewer, even our definition of tradition has been adjusted) season opener of Richmond versus Carlton was remarkably well received.

TV ratings swelled by 12.4 per cent in Melbourne, and 4 per cent nationally, compared to the 2019 opener.

Sport’s role as the great distractor goes back to the Caesars, who doled out bread and circuses to numb the public from the brutality of Roman Empire existence. The argument that the modern public need a distraction from the greatest truly global threat since, well, the last pandemic was the only legitimate talking point advocates of the decision could muster.

The empty venues were expected to be more of a curiosity and potentially a scientific survey. What is the impact of the crowd in home-field advantage? Does it motivate or intimidate the players? Does the roar of outrage or approval influence the umpires who, despite the rumours, are thoroughly human.

The crowds were missed, however not for their impact on the game. The crowds were invisible but it is most obvious where they were; mostly physically distant from each other, doing their part in stopping the relentless progress of something else that is truly invisible.

Empty seats at the MCG

Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Essentially, they were doing what the AFL was not.

The longer the games continued, the novelty of hearing the players’ shouts faded and the elephant in the room came into view.

Despite the assurances of the measures being taken to ensure the health of the players, it was generally accepted that a positive test for coronavirus within the league would have emerged at some point.

But one wonders how many thermometers, masks, sanitiser and other ancillary equipment was in use across the 740 players, and hundreds of support staff, just to cocoon these clubs?

When you read about operating rooms with a shortage of masks and countless other examples of facilities lacking the most basic tools, watching footy felt less and less like an escape from the pandemic and more and more like an unjustifiable farce.

The AFL prides itself on progressive issues and taking a community-first perspective, so it was curious the league was so committed to proceeding. If you have to re-ask the same question as to whether to proceed or not, until you get the answer you want, right up until 24 hours before the first bounce, then you have to consider if you are extending the bounds of the possible and the credible too far.

Are you asking the right question?


In hindsight, the financial plight which will be forced by an extended shutdown was not as well understood outside of the league prior to Gillon McLachlan’s comments on Sunday.

“The AFL industry is facing its biggest financial crisis in our history,” the CEO said.

AFL Chief Executive Officer Gillon McLachlan speaks to the media

Gillon McLachlan (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Admirable as it was, the primary argument of the game continuing for the community fell away at that point and the more pragmatic reasons were laid bare as McLachlan postponed the season.

The NRL held out for a further 24 hours before they too were forced to admit defeat. Their eagerness to continue was based on a more precarious financial position than the AFL’s, and from being less impacted by states’ decisions to close borders.

Additionally, the NRL and its constituent clubs have a much more pressing financial risk, where membership numbers are much lower than in the AFL, and similarly smaller attendance revenues provide a smaller rainy-day fund. Therefore, the reliance on TV rights income becomes even more pointed.

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The AFL is also better positioned from an asset perspective, where it owns Marvel Stadium and some (but by no means all) of its clubs also have significant holdings.

We were all hoping that footy would be the great panacea for the masses, but it is also a good reminder that it is simply the most important of the least important things.

If you want your beloved relative of a certain age to live to see their team’s next premiership, or their first, be kind to each other, wash your hands, and – for goodness sake – stay home.