By Jack Banister and Andrew Stewart
The AFL has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep themselves afloat since COVID-19 reached our shores, juggling competing demands from several stakeholders.
This includes the league renegotiating terms of employment with their players, encouraging them to sign-up to strict COVIDsafe protocols and live in “hubs” outside of Victoria, where they are largely shut-off from everyone but club coaches, staff, and their teammates.
The AFL had to convince the Queensland, West Australian, and South Australian governments that the competition can be run safely, clearing a path for the majority of the season to be played on these largely COVID-free frontiers.
And the league also had to try and keep fan sentiment in their favour when the majority of footy buffs are locked down in Victoria.
Let’s break things down a little further…
At every step throughout the challenge, and despite set-backs, the AFL, and its players, officials and coaches, have remained positive in their sentiment towards the West Australian, South Australian, and Queensland governments.
No doubt you have heard the following expression by coaches in their post-game interviews or to media outlets – “we’d like to thank the X government for letting us play here”.
AFL CEO Gil McLachlan has also led this charm offensive. By doing so, the 2020 season will be something of a legacy piece for those three states, but especially for Queensland.
The AFL’s pleasantries mean that, in the minds of the public, the Palaszczuk Government didn’t just come to the party, they ticked off on the relocation of the game happening in the first place.
But breaches of protocol have posed the biggest problem for the AFL when it comes to keeping all three West Australian, South Australian, and Queensland administrations onside. The league’s subsequent challenge has been to crack down hard on those doing the wrong thing, without disenfranchising the players or fans.
Minor breaches have been met with fines to clubs, and apologies. Crucially, those “minor” offences were breaches of the AFL’s rules, but not state law.
The toughest punishment so far has been given to Sydney’s 19 year old Elijah Taylor, who snuck his girlfriend into the club’s Perth accommodation facilities. However, because the players were in their mandatory 14-day quarantine period, the breach wasn’t just about AFL protocol.
Taylor breached state law and was banned for the remainder of the season by the AFL, who quickly apologised to WA Premier Mark McGowan. McGowan, reflecting the mood of the public well at the time, was not so forgiving in his high-profile response blasting the Swans and Taylor for their errors.
For governments, any leniency on rules or fines given to high profile individuals can quickly snowball into a full page spread and give the opposition talking points for the next couple of media cycles. So, while governments might weigh up how hard they will come down on breaches, they almost always have little choice but to be strong, particularly while the impacts of COVID-19 continue to be felt throughout the community.
The AFL players are working under strange and unusual conditions, shut off from the world outside their hubs.
This has led to fines for visits to day spas and theme parks by family members staying inside club accommodation facilities. Collingwood was fined when its coach, Nathan Buckley, played tennis with Alicia Molik.
The AFL has been somewhat lenient on these breaches, an acknowledgment of the extraordinary conditions the players are living under, and the fact that rules and regulations are lengthy and not immune from legal challenge.
The league also has somewhat more latitude with handling breaches; it can weather the media storm deftly, providing it keeps fans onside. And part of that strategy might be allowing a popular player to continue to play in the knowledge that it will keep loyal fans coming back to watch the game. Interestingly, these loyal fans are often the same members of the public Mark McGowan spoke to in his harsh comments towards the Sydney Swans and inappropriate behaviour of Elijah Taylor.
The AFL is overwhelmingly Victorian – 10 of the 18 clubs come from the state. This means a significant proportion of the game’s supporters are watching as players and clubs grapple with regulations that, to a punter who currently can’t leave home between 8pm and 5am, look comparatively light.
For many of the COVID-19 related breaches so far met with fines, including Nathan Buckley’s tennis game, the perpetrator has offered to pay the fine on behalf of their club.
Acts like Buckley’s have helped to ease fan outrage. Clubs have stood down, or let go, staff in huge numbers since COVID-19 began. Seeing those clubs dishing out $25,000 to pay fines because of protocol breaches from players and staff – who, in the public eye, should know better – is hardly palatable.
There has also been a speedy adaptation by the league to play games seven nights a week. This was a commercial decision pushed by the networks, rather than one about the fans, but a side effect has been a media cycle crowded out by game-driven stories. That means less time left to mull over every single breach of restrictions.
The Grand Final
After a long bidding war between Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland for the AFL’s showpiece event, CEO Gill McLachlan announced that the Gabba in Queensland would host the usually MCG-locked Grand Final. In short, the tussle came down to a battle between the heart and the hip pocket.
Perth, a traditional footy town, could have hosted the game in front of 60,000 fans in a best-case-COVID scenario, delivering huge cheques to the local economy in the process. But Queensland has hosted more games and more clubs in 2020, and it would have been a tough call to deny them the main event – even though Brisbane is outside of footy’s heartland, and offering a crowd of only 30,000 people.
According to McLachlan, it was the biggest decision the league had to make in the roller coaster ride that has been trying to manage a footy season in the midst of a global pandemic.
As we turn the final bend, you can hear the relief in McLachlan’s voice as he closes his Grand Final location statement with:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has left a cloud over our community and our game; we’re now looking forward to an exciting end to this incredible season…”