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The future of Australian sport Part 1: Bigger isn’t better

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29th March, 2020
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We’ve never, ever seen anything like this.

The COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the world has untold implications for the future of sport in Australia.

At both community and professional levels and everything in between, the future is completely unknown.
 When sport does return, it is hard to imagine it will be as it once was.

So what do we want sport to look like? Or maybe the pertinent question is what can sport realistically look like moving forward?

The professional sporting environment in Australia is the most saturated in the world per capita. All these sports are fighting for the corporate dollar, and in a new environment where that corporate dollar will be even tighter, how do they all survive?

In the professional male major sporting codes alone, the NRL have 16 teams, AFL 18, A-League 11, Super Rugby four (plus the Western Force in their fledgling Global Rapid Rugby), and Big Bash with eight.

Adelaide Strikers fans

(AAP Image/David Mariuz)

That’s before we even factor in the NBL and other sports, not to mention Olympic sports and individual sports such as tennis, surfing, golf, and so the list goes on.

Then you must also consider the rise of women’s sport: netball, cricket, and the various football codes.

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Are there too many professional sporting teams in Australia? Is bigger actually better? Is the Australian marketplace too saturated?

The full impact of COVID-19 on the world’s financial markets, unemployment rates and every other aspect of society is yet to be realised. It will be years, not months or weeks, before people recover. What was normal will no longer be so. Why should sport be any different and immune from having to change?
 It is inconceivable that everything in our saturated sporting landscape can remain.

The NRL and AFL have spent the best part of two decades either expanding, or talking of expansion. The GWS Giants have had success on the field over the last three years, culminating in a grand final appearance. The Gold Coast Suns, on the other hand, continue to rely on the AFL for handouts to stay afloat and draft pick concessions, which creates a cycle where a young list mixed with a few old heads who are looking for a pay packet at the end of their careers is smashed week after week, only to build up experience then be pillaged by other clubs.

Jarrod Witts

(Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

The AFL is probably better positioned than any other sport in Australia to survive, such is their financial position. Surely, though, the conversation must be had as to whether so many teams can survive in Melbourne. If in a horror situation two teams were to get cut, it would be the Suns and one from Melbourne. Which one, well, that’s another discussion.

The Gold Coast is a whole other conversation as well. The region has had endless opportunities with both NRL and AFL, and the fledgling clubs sent there have rarely worked in the long term.

This takes me to the NRL. It boggles my mind that the NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and ARLC chairman Peter V’landys claimed straight away that the NRL had three months of financial stability and that prolonged suspension of play would be “catastrophic” for the future of the game. Players taking pay cuts has been immediately negotiated. Some clubs are teetering on the very precipice of extinction.

Todd Greenberg and Peter V’landys speak to the media.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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Which teams go in a new and altered NRL in post-COVID-19 world?
 Gold Coast Titans are first. The discussion regarding financial dispensation to keep it afloat, salary cap exemptions, draft picks and so on for the AFL also apply here even more so. Without NRL head office, they would not have been standing prior to this crisis.

Similar to the AFL’s dominance in Melbourne, the reality of nine teams from Sydney is beyond ridiculous. Many struggle financially as it is in a crowded market. NRL Immortal Andrew Johns said that a 12-team competition is a scenario worth considering – and it is hard to argue with his logic.

Which teams cease to exist? It’s hard to imagine that all of Penrith, Parramatta, Wests Tigers and the Bulldogs continue to exist despite being in NRL heartland. The Sea Eagles have been on financial tenterhooks for a long time.
 Any talk of expansion with another team in south-eastern Queensland, like a second team in Brisbane, must surely now be on the back burner too.

As for rugby union, I don’t even know where to begin. 
I am a rugby union diehard and a lifelong fan and it pains me unbelievably to say this, but I struggle to see how the game survives this. I don’t want to be negative, but it is hard not to be.

A disastrous few years encompassing the Western Force saga and the Israel Folau debacle has been the tip of the iceberg. A civil war within the code between the national body, member states, grassroots organisations and the code’s fans (dwindling as they may be), combined with reductions in playing numbers, viewership and associated rights sees the trajectory of the game in a dire predicament.

Super Rugby has for many years been an absolute debacle and much has been written about this. Do we just engage with a trans-Tasman competition, ditching South Africa and Asia? Or even go it alone with a national competition? But again, this has been a long-tried and often-failed concept. I could write a PhD on Australian rugby.

Noah Lolesio of the Brumbies during the round one Super Rugby match

(Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

The group of passionate rugby people will not let the game ever truly die. That said, whether or not the game at the professional level can survive is another thing entirely. There is a significant risk we become a team well below the elite of New Zealand. Mind you, we already are, having not held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002.

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The post-COVID-19 world for rugby union is one of significant uncertainty.
 Both the A-League and BBL cricket have, in their most recent seasons, been struggling with crowd numbers and TV ratings after enjoying a positive first few years after their respective launches. Are these comps sustainable? Only time will tell.

The paradox of rich broadcast deals is the demand for content. Both the AFL and NRL, in particular, need money to grow their game, but at what cost? Does more content automatically equate to better content? That is arguable at best.

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The two richest football codes in Australia face new broadcast deals in the next handful of years, so there will be interesting machinations ahead to observe.

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Whatever the long-term ramifications of COVID-19 are on the sporting landscape, one thing is clear: administrators are going to have to adapt to survive, rather than thrive. We as the consumers of the content and passionate fans of sport are going to have to cope with change too.

Sadly, teams may cease to exist and many hearts will be broken. I wouldn’t want it to be my team. Yet what is the alternative? I’d rather some rather than none.

Next, Part 2: what does a year of no sport actually look like and what are the ramifications?