144 games plus finals, which means each team will play each other once in 2020. The AFL is likely to announce only the first phase of a fixture to start with, allowing them to adjust on the run if restrictions change. The league is aiming to complete the season by October 31, which is when player contracts end.
Does round one count?
Yes, all results from round one stand and those teams won’t meet each other again during the home-and-away season. The Western Bulldogs will be without Lachie Hunter for the first four rounds after he was suspended by the club for drink-driving and smashing his car into four parked cars last month. Adelaide are sweating on possible suspensions from the AFL after 16 players breached social distancing rules during a training session in the Barossa.
What will the fixture look like?
The season will get going “with a bang”, with Collingwood-Richmond and Collingwood-Melbourne among the potential match-ups for re-opening night. But even the AFL is unsure how the fixture will unfold with so many scenarios developed according to government restrictions, and the initial schedule dependent on border controls in South Australia and Western Australia.
Those states are determined to continue enforcing the strict 14-day quarantine measures on anyone entering the state on non-essential travel. SA premier Steve Marshall has indicated they may be prepared to allow the Crows and Port Adelaide to fly in and out for matches without serving the quarantine period each time, but WA is sticking to its ‘hard borders, no exemptions’ mantra for West Coast and Fremantle.
The AFL hopes to revert to a “traditional” fixture, playing from Thursday through to Sunday, rather than having to cram in matches using mid-week timeslots, although the occasional Wednesday match is still on the table according to broadcasters.
What happened to hubs?
The worst-case scenario of players needing to spend up to 20 weeks in quarantined hubs across the season, which would have come with a $40 million price tag, is unlikely to happen. Instead, the plan is for a ‘short-stay-play’ model, which sees teams in one location for a short period of time.
Nor do the Eagles and Dockers want to spend the season in, say, a Victorian bubble, especially if players from the 16 other teams are sleeping in their own beds. But they might have to relocate temporarily unless the WA government changes their position on border controls.
Under one proposal, the WA teams would begin their season with away games, stay in quarantine accommodation for a period of time, then play a series of home games later in the season if border restrictions are lifted. The league could also start the season with a derbies in WA and SA, buying both clubs more time at home.
The planning for what Gillon McLachlan tried to rebrand as ‘high-performance villages’ hasn’t been wasted, though, as the AFL will have the option of clubs moving into hubs if coronavirus infections spike or the fixture requires a team or two to relocate temporarily to ensure the season runs smoothly.
Where will games be played?
In Victoria, the MCG, Marvel Stadium, GMHBA Stadium and Ballarat’s Mars Stadium are all likely venues, plus the SCG and Giants’ Stadium in Sydney and Metricon Stadium and the Gabba in Queensland. Hawthorn want to play in Tasmania but the government is reluctant, while the Northern Territory is very keen to host two games in 2020. Until border controls are lifted there won’t be games at Adelaide Oval or Optus Stadium.
When will crowds be able to attend matches?
Fans are being told not to expect crowds at sporting events this year, but there is work being done behind the scenes to explore if and how ‘socially distanced’ crowds could work at finals time.
The Northern Territory – which has been relatively free of COVID-19 – indicated it could welcome fans at grounds sooner rather than later. There could also be an interim point where reduced crowds are allowed to attend games as long as they follow socially distancing measures. Venues are definitely looking at the feasibility of such measures but governments are reluctant at this stage to speculate on whether they would allow it.
What changes will there be to the game’s rules?
Integrity is everything in sport so the entire 2020 season must surely be played under the same conditions for its entirety. Round one’s matches were all played with 16-minute quarters (plus time on), to cater for hypothetically quick turnarounds so as many games as possible could be played in quick succession. Even if the fixture returns to relative normality that time will remain for the season. Clubs and the players’ association will push to expand the interchange bench from four to six or eight players. Longer breaks between quarters might suit the broadcasters, rather than being introduced for player wellbeing.
How will the television broadcast be different?
It will be very different. Channel 7 will be take the phrase ‘calling it in’ to a new level in 2020 with all of its games to be called by its commentators remotely from their studio to minimise the risk of spreading coronavirus. But a small number of staff will still be at the ground, including boundary riders. One of the telecast’s most popular segments, “Roaming Brian”, might have to be changed to “Remote Brian” as Seven looks at ways Brian Taylor can still chat to players post-game in the changerooms. And with fans likely unable to attend games for the entire season, artificial crowd noise could be inserted into the broadcast.
How will clubs deal with members and reserved seat holders?
Several clubs, including Geelong, Richmond and the Western Bulldogs, have sent surveys to members to test the mood. All clubs hope there are not widespread requests for refunds, although they have obliged where supporters are experiencing financial hardship.
St Kilda and Geelong have emphasised to their fans the desperate financial plight they face if their supporters don’t stick with them.
Will football departments shrink?
They already have with many development coaches and data analysts made redundant. Clubs are anxiously awaiting the AFL’s decision about cuts to the soft cap with many predicting the figure will go from $9.7 million to between $6-7 million from 2021 onwards. It’s too early to predict with certainty what clubs’ positions will be in relation to recruiting teams and conditioning staff going forward but a working group involving coaches and football managers presented potential models to the AFL CEO during the week. Despite their keenness to get an indication from the AFL, the working group also urged the league to take as much time as needed to do rigorous analysis rather than plucking a figure.
Will salary caps be reduced?
Once games are up and running then the AFL and the Players’ Association will turn their attention to a revised collective bargaining agreement for 2021 and 2022 that takes into account the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Where that lands no-one knows with players already taking a 50 per cent pay cut for 2020 from the moment the game shut down if the season is completed and a 70 per cent pay cut from June 1 if the season does not resume. There is a push from the AFL to eventually reduce lists to 35 but clubs anticipate if this was to happen it would need to happen gradually. Each club must have a minimum list size of 38 under the current CBA.
Can clubs re-sign or trade players?
No-one can be re-signed which means the futures of Collingwood pair Jordan De Goey and Darcy Moore, Essendon’s Joe Daniher, the Giants’ Jeremy Cameron and the Crows’ Brad Crouch remain uncertain with none of them locked in beyond 2020. Make no mistake, clubs are still enquiring about opposition players as potential trade targets but the market has become so uncertain no one is making any guarantees about anything.
Will the national draft happen?
The AFL is determined it will but its timing and format remains uncertain. One proposal being investigated is for under-18 NAB League players and standalone VFL club players to combine in a shortened competition that becomes an opportunity for players to be assessed ahead of the draft.
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.
Ronny Lerner is a Sports reporter for The Age.