At this stage, everyone is preparing for games without crowds for the first couple of weeks.
Eventually, the expectation within clubs is that players or coaches will contract COVID 19 and the games will be cancelled, the fate of the NBA and several major international sports.
When that happens, there will be, as one club president put it, “no product’’ to sell – nothing to watch. If it will be difficult for the clubs to pay the bills with empty stands, many will not be able to function at all once the games themselves are closed down without help.
Coronavirus, indeed, could well put clubs on an AFL respirator. It is inconceivable that some clubs – not necessarily just small ones – will keep paying their staff and players without AFL life support.
That said, as with the general population, some are more vulnerable to the effects of the virus than others.
West Coast has cash reserves of $45 million or so. Collingwood has their own future fund of about $17m in reserve, and close to $30m in the bank. Hawthorn has a strong balance sheet, as does the revived Richmond, Adelaide and recovering Essendon (albeit the Dons lost untold millions during the drug saga).
St Kilda, North Melbourne, Melbourne, Port Adelaide and the Brisbane Lions, though, will rely heavily on the AFL during the crowd-free or potential shut-down. The Lions, for instance, owe a combined $17m to the AFL and their bank, while the Saints’ debt also is beyond $10m.
The AFL, quite deliberately, has put the onus on clubs to be masters of their own affairs and to undertake cost-cutting themselves. The AFL agenda, obviously, is to ensure that clubs don’t rely on the central body to bail them out – as if they were Lehmann Brothers – and that they begin pruning costs now.
To date, the clubs and the league have adopted a collaborative approach, with the view that they’re all in this crisis together. Since no one has much idea of what will happen, all manner of solutions are being thrown up. The most astonishing reality is that the fixture may need to be revamped, potentially after round 2, to shorten the breaks between games, completing as many as possible before the calamitous shut-down.
Costs will be slashed. Some staff will cop pay cuts, some may be moved on – or their jobs put on hold. Parts of the club operations that are deemed non-essential to the “core business’’ – community programs for example – will take a hit.
Player payments – the most critical expense for clubs and competition – shape as the major question mark and perhaps the sternest test of whether the game’s current unity will be sustained. The players’ deal was based on a percentage of AFL revenue (28 per cent), but what happens if the size of the cake is reduced? The fine print of that deal suddenly becomes larger.
Players often speak, sincerely, of their wish to “grow the game’’. We’re about to discover what their partnership looks like when the game shrinks.