Australian sport reacts to Coronavirus



We’re simple people, sports lovers. Throughout our lives we’ve been able to periodically escape any form of turmoil, whether personal, on a global scale, or anywhere in between, through sport.


The very act of watching sport transports us from the present, as the thrill of the contest and the unpredictability of the outcome draw us in and make us forget about pretty much everything else.


This time around however, as the Coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe and leads many of us to self-isolation, this form of escapism is proving challenging to find.


As it currently stands, with crowds of over 500 banned nationwide, the AFL season will kick off tonight (with shorter quarters, less matches & possibly top-up players to address quick turnarounds), the AFLW season will continue (as an extended finals series rather than as originally scheduled), the NRL is preparing for Round Two (at this stage not in a singular ‘magic’ location), the A-League is looking to expedite its’ season’s final chapters (despite two teams requiring a fortnight’s isolation) and the Golden Slipper will run as one of five Group One races this weekend at Rosehill (providing the jockeys’ chartered planes arrive on time).


In the northern hemisphere, there’s nary a sport in progress at all, with the NBA, English Premier League, NHL, PGA Tour, WTA & ATP tours, and more, all postponed - though if one does want to gamble, responsibly, your local corporate bookmaker is still running markets on Russian volleyball and table tennis (no, I’m not joking).


It’s impossible at this point in time to decide what is the correct course of action for sports administrators; cancel, postpone, or play on.


There are major implications from a financial perspective, of course. Broadcasters reverting to a pro-rata, per-game payment model could well spell the end for cash-poor organisations such as Rugby Australia and Football Federation Australia, let alone the NRL and AFL.


“Major football codes will lose at least $200m in revenue and have as much as another $500m at risk this year if gates remain closed for six months, or if competitions are cancelled due to the coronavirus,” John Stensholt writes in today’s The Australian.


“The $200m figure is the income the AFL, NRL, Football Federation Australia and Rugby Australia made from gate receipts and corporate hospitality in 2019, and all codes had hopes to at least equal or even exceed last year’s crowd figures had the 2020 seasons gone ahead under normal circumstances.”


As Australians, we are often uncomfortable talking about money, but in this instance and to paraphrase Lewis Hamilton, cash absolutely is king. In the context of an already extremely complicated and pressurised Australian sports broadcasting landscape, neither the sports nor the broadcasters can afford to turn the cameras off and send the players home.


As Paul Kent writes in the Daily Telegraph:


“Nine announced a 9 per cent drop in profit in February, prompting chief executive Hugh Marks to say the network had to drive $100 million out of its free to air business. Marks suggested they might abandon big live sporting events like the Ashes to offset the losses.


“Foxtel, which televises the NRL through Fox Sports, reported a $306 million loss last year. The thought that either company would happily continue handing over almost $16 million a week, with not a game to show for it and with the potential for the entire season to be wiped out, is naively optimistic.”


Kent’s colleague Dean Ritchie spoke to Manly Sea Eagles Chairman Scott Penn who explained that “the reality is that... clubs would go under unless they had significant reserves they could tap into or funding. It’s crucial that we find funding. The league is definitely going to need assistance to continue if we are unable to generate crowds. The reality is all clubs survive on a combination of the monthly (broadcast) grant, gate receipts, membership, merchandise and sponsorship. There are really only five or six key lines of revenue and the fact is, they are all contingent on us playing games and putting brands out in the market.


“There are tough times for a multitude of companies but we aren’t just another business – we do provide a level of weekly interest and hope that not many other companies do. It’s a passion for so many people. It’s an element of hope every week and it’s fun. I can watch my team – to not have that and focus on the catastrophic headlines isn’t what anyone wants.”


This scenario applies to varying degrees across all of the major sports.


Should athletes take pay cuts? If so, how much is a fair amount? Should a player on $500,000 with a big mortgage and no rainy-day fund sacrifice more than a rookie on $75,000, living at home, with limited outgoings? How many physios, recruiters, reporters, analysts, cameramen will lose their jobs? It’s the great unknown.


It's easy to flip-flop between whether the sports which are (at this stage) ploughing ahead are taking unnecessary risks, or in fact whether shutting down (and the employment implications which would follow) would be an irresponsible course of action.


Many people think it’s a moot point, and that the decision will be taken out of their hands soon enough. In Austria, gatherings are now limited to five people; even a reduction to 50 here by the Australian Government would knock all but the round-ball code on the head, and 30 would do for them.


For those of us whose lives, both professional and personal, revolve (almost) entirely around sport, it’s pretty easy to feel like this is an end of days scenario. Weeks, even months without professional sport is a daunting prospect, to put it lightly – and it’s okay to not feel okay about that.


"Sports has a unique role in our communities,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said this week. “It's something people rally around and can bring them so much joy and excitement. That's not something a regular company can do, so we will have to be an agile organization, ready to take on the important role of moving the community forward."


But there are plenty of reasons to be positive. Working from home? You’ve got instant access to your television and subscription services on your lunch break, as well as saved time from your commute. They might not have a plethora of live content, but providers like Optus Sport & Kayo have extensive back-catalogues of classic contests, as well as documentaries, while The Test has recently premiered on Amazon Prime.


It’s a great opportunity to catch up on some long reads you might’ve bookmarked in the past, such as this one that’s sat in my bookmarks for months, as well as maybe checking out a few podcasts you’ve not heard before (for me, That Peter Crouch Podcast is essential listening for a laugh). Sites like The Athletic are offering paywalled content for free in some instances, while journalists have the opportunity more broadly to deep dive into feature territory and tell some of the stories behind the athletes that’ve been on their radar.


So, sports lover, while it’s okay to be a little flat, it’s important to retain perspective. Off you go, there’s Russian volleyball to watch!


Further reading on this topic:

A day at the races unlike any in the past century, The Age (Damian Ractliffe)

Beware sporting disaster capitalists not letting this crisis go to waste, The Guardian (Jonathan Liew)

20 thoughts on coronavirus as world sport shuts down (and reasons to be optimistic), NZ Herald (Dylan Cleaver)

Welcome to the precipice of a not-Australia with no sport, Sydney Morning Herald (Malcolm Knox)

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