The crowd-free call follows a decision to exclude spectators from AFLW games this weekend, with only the Geelong v North Melbourne match going ahead on Friday night with supporters.
Proceeding without crowds – starting with Richmond v Carlton on Thursday night, then the Western Bulldogs v Collingwood on Friday night – is an unprecedented move, which comes after the government’s decision, based on chief medical officer advice, to shut down gatherings of 500 people or more from Monday.
In announcing the move, the AFL said medical authorities had indicated “there is a potential for interruption across the season” and would look at “all fixturing alternatives to ensure both seasons [AFL and AFLW] are completed”.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said in a statement late Friday: “The health and wellbeing of fans, players, umpires, officials, partners and communities is the priority, with the decision made following advice provided by both federal and state governments and the state and territory chief medical officers.”
He said the AFL would continue to be guided by advice while acknowledging that matters “may continue to evolve”.
The AFL said that, as of Saturday, March 14, AFL and AFLW matches “will now only host players, coaches, essential club officials, umpires, AFL match day officials, essential broadcast teams, media and required venue staff with no supporters permitted to attend”.
The league said fans who purchased tickets for round one through Ticketmaster and Ticketek would receive a refund. Club, AFL and venue members would receive information on their rights in the coming days, in one of a host of complications.
“The AFL and clubs will continue to put a range of precautionary measures in place to protect the wellbeing of players and club officials,” the AFL said.
Clubs, rather than the AFL itself, will bear most of the financial cost of losing crowds and the loss of gate takings, membership refunds – if that applies – the loss of corporate sales and reserved seat earnings.
The AFL has minimal insurance coverage for an epidemic, but its finances are protected by the broadcast deal, huge major sponsors and the league’s future fund of more than $120 million, which can be drawn upon.
McLachlan said the situation was fluid with different scenarios in different states. The AFL would continue dialogue with governments and “relevant regulatory and medical authorities”.
“The health and safety of fans, players, umpires, officials, partners and communities is the priority, so it is important that we take the advice of those that know best, and that advice right now is to continue with matches but not to host mass gatherings, which can put everyone at risk,” he said.
“We have said from the outset that we will rely on the advice of the medical experts, who have been planning to deal with this situation for some time, and we will continue to make decisions based on the advice of the chief medical officers.
“I am disappointed for our fans but we cannot put them in a situation that potentially jeopardises the health and wellbeing of the whole community,” McLachlan continued.
“The landscape is changing quickly, each organisation has their own set of challenges, but our clubs, players, officials and fans know that the health and safety of all is the No. 1 priority.
“At an AFL club level, our football departments are elite sporting environments. Club doctors and medical staff are well equipped to work through any precautionary measures and manage any player health concerns – this is something they continue to do on a daily basis as they prepare for the season.”
McLachlan said the AFL’s protocols for clubs – designed to prevent further infections -would be updated as required.
“We are working through a major issue that impacts the wider community and we will work with all our clubs and industry partners to ensure that footy finds a way.”
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.