MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Australian Football League, the country’s best-attended sporting championship, opened its season on Thursday with two Melbourne teams playing in an all but empty 100,000-seat stadium as club bosses fretted about the coronavirus impact.
While the pandemic has brought sports to a shuddering halt across the globe, Australia’s major leagues are grimly ploughing on with a “too big to fail” mentality while shutting out fans as part of containment efforts.
The ‘social distancing’ measures ensured a surreal atmosphere at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where defending champions Richmond Tigers played cross-town rivals Carlton Blues in the AFL’s now-traditional season-opener.
Last year’s corresponding match drew 85,000 roaring fans to the hulking stadium, but only a smattering of staff, officials and media were present to watch the teams battle for the first championship points.
Only 11 days earlier, the MCG packed in 86,000 in a festive atmosphere to see Australia’s women cricketers beat India for the Twenty20 World Cup title.
Those now seem like simpler times, when the country had yet to fully understand the impact of the pandemic which by Thursday had infected more than 212,000 people worldwide and killed 8,700.
Governments may be gripped by bigger priorities than football matches but, as for airlines and tourism, the coronavirus has been a hammer blow for global sport.
Australia’s National Rugby League, which has also elected to grind on without fans, has already pleaded publicly for government funding, saying it will go broke if forced to shut down for an extended period.
The AFL would need to absorb a financial blow of several hundred million dollars from lost gate receipts and corporate hospitality if the six-month season plays out entirely without spectators.
Putting on a show without fans is therefore paramount for the leagues as they look to broadcast revenues to offset further losses.
Yet the broadcast lifeline is tenuous at best, with the emergence of a single positive coronavirus test at a club likely to cause further costly disruptions if not halt the season altogether.
Stopping that in a high-contact sport involving fierce tackling and players regularly coming off the ground with blood seeping from cuts, is easier said than done.
A number of clubs have already suffered scares, with players showing symptoms quarantined for testing before being cleared.
Majak Daw, a Sudan-born player for the North Melbourne Kangaroos, was the latest footballer to send a scare through the AFL on Thursday, when he was sent home by the club after turning up to training with a cold.
In seasons past, he would have trained regardless of the symptoms, said North Melbourne coach Rhyce Shaw.
“He’s got the sniffles and doesn’t seem too bad,” Shaw told reporters on Thursday.
“Our docs have made sure we just take all the right precautions.”
While the men’s season is just ramping up, the AFLW women’s competition is winding down abruptly, with the league making the decision to cut the regular season short and head straight into the playoffs.
Some fans queried whether the competition’s integrity had been compromised.
The league believes, even in a state of emergency, someone deserves to win.
“The motivating sense for us is to try to get a result for the AFLW competition in what is a very uncertain time,” AFL head of women’s football Nicole Livingstone said on Thursday.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise