There’s a nice little meeting at HQ this week where I’ve decided to start late with Race 5 (you’d think I have an AM golf game).
We’ve all heard about the broadcast dollars that will be lost if sporting codes don’t go ahead in 2020, but there’s a longer-term issue worrying governing bodies behind closed doors: making sure people don’t realise they can live without sport.
Australia’s biggest winter codes, the AFL and the NRL, would likely never publicly declare this given it would open people’s eyes to it, but the coronavirus pause threatens to deplete their audiences.
The mainstream sporting cycle is engrained in Australians. We’re a sporting country after all.
Simply put, cricket dominates summer while football and basketball tick along like a neglected middle child periodically receiving attention. Tennis gets the spotlight in January, AFL, AFLW, netball, league and union (mainly NRL) take absolute charge for six to eight months across autumn and winter, then horse racing gallops through October and early November and we do it all over again and again and again.
But 2020 has completely thrown that out. Like an addiction we never knew we had, we’ve been forced to go cold turkey. As entertaining as replays from yesteryear can be, it’s not quite the same.
Over the past few decades Australian sport has expanded to dominate our weekends. Just look at the AFL and NRL broadcast schedule, with staggered games throughout Saturday and Sunday and the codes’ creeping into Thursday and Monday nights. It’s very different to the old simultaneous 3pm Saturday kick-off.
With no sport on, suddenly the weekend looks drastically different. There are fewer commitments. COVID-19 life has offered other hobbies to pursue, like cooking, more family time, DIY, puzzles, Netflix, podcasts, hiking, the outdoors and the list goes on and on.
This won’t be the case for everybody, but for a small percentage of every sport’s audience going cold turkey on attending matches or watching sport on TV will feel liberating. These newfound hobbies may endure in people’s lives long term over sport.
Plus not having your Sunday night emotional state dictated by the result of your team is quite emancipating!
You might say who cares about a small percentage, but if you consider 89.11 million people watched AFL matches on TV in 2019, losing three per cent, for example, equates to roughly 2.67 million fans. That’s not pocket change for a sport constantly trying to grow its audience.
For what it’s worth, I absolutely cannot wait to watch my team again, but I’ve also realised I’ve enjoyed not stressing on a Sunday afternoon about that player in my AFL Fantasy team who keeps on underdelivering. I’ve enjoyed not finding myself channel-surfing between games neutral to me on a Saturday afternoon or opening up my iPhone every 15 minutes while out with the family to get an updated score from that game where I picked a roughie in the work tipping comp.
Those little habits I’ve formed related to the weekend’s sport suddenly have been exposed and I’ve realised I don’t actually need them. I don’t profess to speak for everyone but I reckon I’m not alone.
They say after a break-up there are typically several grieving phases we go through, including denial, relapse and acceptance.
It’s been almost two months since the AFL and NRL both broke up their respective 2020 seasons. Both competitions have now set dates for resumptions. But I wonder in the meantime how many supporters have gone through these break-up phases and begun to find acceptance in life without sport.
You may rebut and believe absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it’s true the majority of fans will be craving sport’s return, but I’d argue it won’t be everyone.
Privately with a long-term view all sporting codes will be assessing the damage done after this coronavirus episode and how much people have realised they can actually live without sport.