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AFL and NRL: why the differences in return to play?

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The NRL’s desire to play earlier is largely motivated by its need for broadcast dollars from Nine, the owner of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and Foxtel – a motive that the AFL shares, but without the same urgency.

For the NRL, the earlier timeline was seen as an utter necessity, and has been pushed relentlessly by their extraordinarily well-connected chairman Peter V’landys, whose position as head of NSW Racing has given him a platform to lobby that state’s government and Canberra.

Crucial asset: The AFL-owned Marvel Stadium.

Crucial asset: The AFL-owned Marvel Stadium.Credit:Darrian Trainor

What does geography have to do with it?

The AFL clubs are spread across five states, including Western Australia and South Australia, while the NRL is heavily concentrated in NSW/ACT (11 clubs) and Queensland (three clubs).

The continental spread of the AFL means that it has to deal with different public health rules in those states, and with travel restrictions. This complicates the league’s plans to resume games, which could return in a similar arrangement to Round 1, but with massive testing for the virus and tighter controls. Another contentious option – less popular with players – are quarantine hubs, where as many as 32 players would be locked down in two different locations where games would be played. The AFL’s hub scenario – which can be averted if the clubs are allowed to cross borders – requires a high level of planning and government consent, including repeated testing of the players.

The NRL is looking to return with a more conventional arrangement (though without crowds), relying on charter flights – and it is not considering hubs.

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While less critical of the NRL, Foxtel has followed suit and has asked for the same percentage reduction.

Meanwhile, Seven will confirm the dollar figure of its 2020 payment to the AFL later, with a reduction expected to be in proportion to the games lost (45, if the 17-round season is completed). Seven, too, has been in discussions with the league about an extension of the broadcast deal.

The way both codes have dealt with free-to-air broadcasters has differed, but their dealings with Foxtel have been similar.

The way both codes have dealt with free-to-air broadcasters has differed, but their dealings with Foxtel have been similar.Credit:Phil Carrick

Who’s calling the shots?

This is one of the clearest and most striking contrasts between the codes.

While the AFL has engaged the entire industry – at least those who are still working – its decision-making has been driven by chief executive Gillon McLachlan and his executive team who, like the clubs, are operating with a skeleton staff.

The NRL, conversely, is being written and directed by V’landys, the forceful and enterprising chairman, rather than McLachlan’s counterpart, chief executive Todd Greenberg, who recently quit his role. V’landys has influential club bosses in his corner, particularly Roosters chairman Nick Polites and South Sydney chairman Nick Pappas.

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This reflects the NRL’s culture and less corporate governance model in which chairmen, rather than the executives, call the shots.

Peter V'landys has influential NRL club bosses in his corner.

Peter V’landys has influential NRL club bosses in his corner.Credit:AAP

Where will this end up?

The AFL has to condense a further 16 rounds into 14 weeks, and then play finals. Crucial talks between McLachlan and the states – especially Western Australia and South Australia – will shape the nature of the AFL’s set-up. If players are allowed to cross borders, hubs might not be necessary, although there would be a huge onus on players to play by the rules in their social and domestic lives.

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The NRL, true to form, is even pushing to have socially distant crowds for the finals in October.

The AFL’s caution has also derived from a recognition that it cannot afford to resume games and then abruptly halt them again, jeopardising its season and parlous finances. Both codes have already lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to their shutdowns; in the AFL’s case, this has made clubs into virtual receiverships administered by the AFL and opened up cracks between haves and have-nots.

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The AFL is treading lightly on the question of when and if crowds will return, but has conditioned the clubs to the notion that it’s unlikely to be this year. It is possible, though, that the Northern Territory could host at least one game before crowds.

It’s arguable that the positions of the two codes have been governed not simply by their different needs and financial and geographic profiles but by cultural contrasts between Melbourne- and Sydney-centred sports: in this case, fast-paced Sydney is in a hurry to get moving, while Melbourne is hastening slowly.

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