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When is it safe to start the A-League and will anyone turn up?

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Expert
20th September, 2021
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At the time of writing, 37.3 per cent of the Australian population above the age of 16 had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

After attending a medical practice on Saturday afternoon for a shot of my own and witnessing the high patient turnover rate, the number of those fully protected appears destined to continue to climb rapidly over the coming weeks.

Such increases will be an important factor in the pending decision to be made by the Australian Professional Leagues in regards to the exact starting date of the A and W-League competitions for the upcoming season.

Our Prime Minister’s insistence some months back that the vaccination program was ‘not a race’ has since morphed into his most awful and ironic metaphor, with Australians now encouraged to sprint to the ‘finish line’ in an effort to have borders re-opened and freedom of movement returned.

While that will have vast implications for trade, travel and business, it will also decide exactly in what shape or form top tier football will look like when it returns. Any decision will focus intently on the situation in New South Wales and Victoria, with eight of the 12 A-League clubs based in south eastern Australia and Wellington Phoenix almost certain to be the same for at least the start of the season.

With the original commencement date of October 30 now looming and a best case scenario when it comes to an A-League season launch, APL will face a host of demanding questions before committing definitively to a specific date.

Current data suggests that 70 per cent of the nation will be double dosed by around October 27, which cuts things very fine in terms of APL head Greg O’Rourke and his team committing to the original plan.

Sydney FC fans

Sydney FC fans at the SCG (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Doing so and if vaccination rates drop in the interim period, could well see restrictions on the number of people permitted in stadiums continue and state government policy remain in control of the A-League spectacle we will eventually see in Round 1.

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It is a crucial decision. As fans, we all want to attend the matches. Network 10 would no doubt be desperate for a cracking opening Saturday night fixture played in a well populated and heaving stadium and even just one round of the 2021-22 championship season without fans would be another financial hit the clubs simply do not need.

Those risks suggest a brief delay could well be on the cards, with the magical 80 per cent national vaccination rate appearing likely by November 12th and a two week delay removing much of the nervousness around committing to the earlier date.

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However, what complicates the decision further is a vast discrepancy in the projected dates that individual states appear likely to reach those targets. Whilst NSW and ACT should meet the 80 per cent threshold in late October, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland are looking more like early to mid-December, while Victoria sits somewhere in between with mid-November the most accurate estimate based on modelling.

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Essentially, the national numbers become irrelevant, with state jurisdictions and their ability and willingness to loosen restrictions holding the starting date of the A-League in the palm of their hands.

Added to the dilemma is the mindset of fans. Double vaccinated people will no doubt be keen to attend the football, yet what level of confidence will they have to do so? Furthermore, if two doses of the COVID-19 vaccination become a mandatory requirement for entry, where would that leave fans still in the queue waiting and those who conscientiously object to vaccinations as a whole?

Should casual interstate travel be once again permitted, those issues then broaden. South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland have had little trouble in hosting other codes over the last few months, with full stadiums becoming commonplace again.

However, with fluidity of movement around the nation soon to be the norm, they too will have nervous locals somewhat concerned about attending matches with people from interstate should vaccination not be made mandatory for all attendees.

Two or three hubs would have course alleviate some of these issues, yet the financial losses that hubs induce are far from ideal and once again stadiums would appear worryingly empty when two teams normally based elsewhere meet each other in a foreign city.

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As has been the case for 18 months now, the situation is fluid. Blazing away and commencing or postponing briefly; all while relying on still uncertain vaccination rates, both present positives and negatives.

A new broadcaster waits in the wings to know the answer and the date, the fans are desperate for football to return and the nation nervously prepares itself for the ‘new normal’ as more and more people lose their lives each day.

Football and sport in general should not be the number one priority right now, yet from an industry perspective it is important for all involved that the A-League makes a safe, positive and significant start; one that will place the league on the road to recuperating some of the financial loses taken over the last two years.

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