The AFL was ready to use the future fund – established with an initial $120 million from the broadcast rights deal – to shore up any losses from coronavirus fallout, though it is unclear whether clubs would be compensated.
A memo sent to AFL clubs indicated the AFL’s insurance did not contemplate payouts for an epidemic. AFL sources said there would be some limited coverage for losses, but that there would be a substantial loss of revenues.
The AFL was scrambling to sort out contingencies after a Victorian Government briefing this week made clear that more drastic measures – such as the locked-out games – were a distinct possibility and that football was likely to face major consequences.
AFL Players Association boss Paul Marsh briefed player agents on the situation on Wednesday and warned they should be braced for the strong chance that some games would be crowd-less.
The league is updating clubs but the position remains fluid on a range of matters, such as how club members could be refunded if they are locked out of games. This difficult issue was debated at the meeting of the AFL and clubs (chief executives) on Tuesday.
The AFL was still trying to work out who could attend games if there was a ban on mass gatherings. It was undecided whether media – other than the broadcaster – could attend locked-out games.
It has been decided that no media will be allowed in the rooms before or after games if they are held behind closed doors.
Many clubs were eager for a united front on the membership refund issue, but said it was premature to take a position until it was known if games would be affected.
Players have been warned to take a range of precautions including not shaking hands with people, limiting contact with fans, only signing autographs with their own pen and not holding a phone for a selfie. Clubs are having no open training sessions. The Bulldogs, Brisbane Lions and Collingwood were set to enforce some of these protocols at their season launches on Wednesday night.
Some AFL clubs said that in the event that one of their players being found to have the virus that players would be quarantined but not the whole team or club, and so games could conceivably go ahead.
However, any decision on whether games went ahead or were held in empty stadiums would be taken by governments, and not the AFL or clubs.
The warnings came as an EPL fixture between Arsenal and Manchester City was postponed simply because the manager of another team Arsenal had recently played – not one of the players – had contracted the virus.
In the event that a game was forced to be cancelled, the AFL’s position has previously been that the first and strong preference is for another window to be found in which to play the game.
Clubs have launched a host of precautionary measures to limit the exposure of their players to the virus, including exploring the possibility of chartering their own flights for games. A minimum party of 60, including players, was required to travel to a game according to one club.
Clubs have been told to cut discretionary spending in expectation of heavy financial losses in the game. The AFL has already begun their own cost-cutting program.
Western Bulldogs chief executive Ameet Bains said it was impossible to accurately estimate the cost of games being played in empty stadiums because there were so many variables between games, including which stadium it was played in and the size of the following of the opposition.
But Bains said a single round played in front of no crowd would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Bulldogs president Peter Gordon said the robust health of the AFL at the moment was important in withstanding the likely costs.
“We are both confident and determined that we will survive and we are prepared to take the financial hits necessary to accord with our broader obligation which is to protect our employees and our members and our fans from undue risk,” Gordon said.
“I think it is time for cool heads, studious following of what experts tell us particularly with respect to public health, certain segments of the community who are at more risk than others.”
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.
Michael Gleeson is an award-winning senior sports writer specialising in AFL and athletics.
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.