Last week, the NRL announced league play would resume in late May, following the introduction of strict biosecurity rules.
But even with new restrictions in place, the league should not resume until it can guarantee the safety of their players and employees.
The league also needs to ask serious questions about the social role of New South Wales’ biggest sport. Rugby’s return can signal a return to normalcy, but is the NRL sending the right message at the right time?
Many clubs are anxious about the short timeframe for restating play. They need enough time to resume operations, rehire personnel, stake out lodging and restart training. They also need time to put in place the proper health precautions.
Although the league claims its rules will be more “stringent than government restrictions”, it is unclear whether the biosecurity measures will be approved at the state or federal level. The league released a 47-page memorandum to clubs on Sunday evening, including additional measures such as:
increased player testing
playing in empty stadiums
a restricted schedule that limits travel
a mandatory COVID-19 training module
the social isolation of players inside their homes, except for essential business and travel
tough sanctions for rule violations.
The premiers of Victoria and Queensland have already voiced concerns about the NRL’s plans. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the federal government have no official position on the move, delegating responsibility for oversight of the NRL’s plans to the states, critics say the resumption of play sets a bad example at a time when Australia is on the cusp of eliminating domestic coronavirus transmissions.
Global health expert Adam Kamradt-Scott has said the restart date was “arbitrary” and warned
“if [the NRL] jump the gun and restart things too early we will confront the situation where we will see cases rise again and us having to go back into stronger restrictions.
The NRL’s weakened financial position has played an important role in its decision to resume play. By mid-April, the league only had about $70 million in cash and was losing $13 million per unplayed round.
The league asked the government for a bailout and was denied. Despite having its largest-ever television contracts, the league had not invested in any collateral, such as a stadium or even the land under its own headquarters, and over the past few years, had spent down its rainy-day fund.
Having also not invested in pandemic insurance, it was looking at a certain financial catastrophe.
A world without sports
The league’s financial woes worsened after a fortnight of sparring with its biggest television partner, Nine, which led pundits to wonder whether the NRL might still have a television home when its current contract ends in 2022.
At the end of the week, the NRL seemed to reach an agreement with Nine. Their rapprochement comes with additional confidence of a forthcoming three-year extension of their television deal, but likely worth less than the last agreement.
By contrast, the NRL’s chief rival, the AFL, had put itself in a position to weather the virus for longer – a fact many rugby fans likely found galling. The AFL also cancelled play and stood down up to 80% of its staff, but it received loans from ANZ and NAB, thanks to the AFL’s ownership of the Docklands Stadium.
The recent departure of NRL Chief Executive Todd Greenberg and the resignation of Rugby Australia Chief Executive Raelene Castle further illustrate how difficult a time it can be for rugby administrators.
Of course, there is danger with restarting too soon, as sporting clubs are particularly vulnerable to the spread of diseases.
Before the NBA season was shut down last month, a number of players tested positive for coronavirus, including four members of the Brooklyn Nets. Only one of the Nets was symptomatic, which raises the question: how long might the asymptomatic players continued to play had league officials not postponed the season?
Asymptomatic carriers could be the biggest problem for the NRL, too. A study in the British Medical Journal and a World Health Organisation report suggested that four-fifths of infected people may be asymptomatic.
As such, the NRL’s proposal to use apps to check temperatures and overall player health might miss those who are infected but not showing symptoms.
The NRL has also had significant issues with health technology in the past, such as when its “sideline injury surveillance” technology failed to properly assess head trauma to Matt Moylan after a shocking collision last year. Moylan played for another 10 minutes before being pulled off the field.
There is also growing scepticism about the NRL’s ability to police itself.
Peter V’landys, the chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, promises there will be sanctions for those who violate the biosecurity measures.
We’ve got no option, there must be a deterrent because one reckless act will bring down an entire competition and the livelihoods that come with that.
But has the league developed enough trust? It resisted calls for independent doctors to assess concussions for years and, since agreeing to the checks, has only done them inconsistently. It is not certain that league-affiliated doctors would be any more responsible in their approach to coronavirus.
The league is also relying heavily on buy-in from players, many of whom are known more for their recklessness than responsibility. Just this week, several players were forced to apologise after breaching social-distancing rules on a camping trip.
Nor is it clear that fans will support these changes. How will supporters respond, for instance, if a star player is sanctioned for an unessential trip out of his home?
Another logistical question: does the league plan to keep players and other employees separate from their families for the whole season? In other sports, similar models have proven difficult. Teams on the Tour de France have traditionally tried to keep riders separate from their families, with mixed success.
It has been a month without rugby and the NRL’s decision to resume play promises an end to every sports fan’s purgatory. Even so, the league should strongly reconsider. A longer delay, or even a cancelled season, is better than risking the lives of players, league employees and other Australians if the coronavirus were to spread further.
Packed stadiums are the bread and butter of sports. Crowds create stadium atmosphere and generate revenue. For a global industry built on live entertainment and big crowds, the continued spread of COVID-19 could be disastrous for international sports events.
Australia’s sports leagues and teams are not immune, though in recent days, it would be hard to tell.
Despite the cancellations of major international sporting events like the Indian Wells tennis tournament and the Chinese Grand Prix, and European football matches being played in closed stadiums, a record crowd of 86,174 fans descended on the MCG to watch the T20 Women’s World Cup final last weekend.
Days later, the decision to hold the match looked ill-advised when the government put the cricket match on its list of exposure sites for coronavirus cases.
This weekend’s Australian Grand Prix was finally cancelled this morning, but only after organisers held an emergency meeting to discuss various options with fans lined up at the gates.
Now, with the rest of the NBA and NHL seasons in the US being suspended and the MLB season being delayed, Australian sports leagues are finally starting to take action.
The NRL announced today its first round of matches would go ahead as normal this weekend after Prime Minister Scott Morrison banned public gatherings of more than 500 people, but future matches would be played behind closed doors. The AFLW and NBL made similar announcements, while a decision is expected to be forthcoming from the AFL within days.
This is a positive sign, but there are worrying questions why it took Australian sports officials so long to act, particularly when stadiums and arenas were emptying out so quickly in other countries.
For health officials, the timing is important. Just days ago, Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said that since there had not yet been any reported cases of “community transmission” of the virus in Victoria, the Australian Grand Prix, in particular, could go ahead.
However, this changed today when Premier Daniel Andrews said no spectators would be allowed at the Grand Prix “on public health grounds”.
Officials elsewhere in the world haven’t waited this long to make tough calls on cancelling events. The Indian Wells event in California was cancelled after a single case of coronavirus was confirmed locally. (The ATP Tour was then suspended for six weeks.) And the upcoming Bahrain Grand Prix decided days ago it will be held on a closed track with no spectators.
There have been mixed messages on whether it’s safe to attend NRL matches, as well. Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to appeal for calm by saying he would be going to the footy this weekend, but an infectious disease specialist said this morning he was incredulous the season hadn’t already been cancelled.
But these moves were remarkably slow to materialise and the season began as usual this week with arch-rivals Parramatta and Canterbury playing in front of a sizeable crowd. In recent days, CEO Todd Greenberg has also been urging fans to continue “to go to public events” and “do your normal activities”.
We will put plans in place, we are not jumping to any conclusions just yet, but of course we are mindful of the problems that might exist.
More than mindfulness is required. This wait-and-see approach looks weak now that the world is in the midst of a pandemic. Contingency plans should have been developed long before the start of the season, with clear communication to clubs, players and fans alike.
From a commercial standpoint, AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan has also sought to minimise concerns about the virus, saying the league has “limited exposure” given its domestic focus.
At the moment, the coronavirus has implications for those with supply chain or international links and that’s not where we’re at.
There has been some discussion about modifying the season if the outbreak continues to spread, including cancelling games, playing in empty stadiums or condensing the schedule.
The AFL has modelled the potential cost to the league of such steps, but has remained tight-lipped about these projections.
While the NRL and AFL earn a substantial amount of their income from television broadcast deals, revenue generated through gate receipts is also important to clubs, as is secondary food and beverage, merchandise and other game-day spending.
While short-term cancellations or closed stadiums can likely be managed by most teams, the longer-term impacts could be much harder to address if the virus continues to worsen. Locking out fans could require membership reimbursements, but what about corporate box revenue and catering contracts?
The players, too, stand to lose a significant portion of their salaries. While those on guaranteed contracts will not be affected by cancelled games, all first- and second-year players signed to base salary contracts with match payments could stand to lose quite a bit.
While the risk to fans is of obvious concern, the health of athletes should also be taken into consideration.
Many of us think of athletes as some of the healthiest people we know. And yet, research suggests elite athletes can be more susceptible to viruses due to the immense physical and mental stress they are under, which may affect their immune systems.
There are also added risks associated with air travel, physical contact during competition and living in close quarters with other athletes. A study of the Finnish team at the 2018 Winter Olympics showed just how fast such illnesses like the common cold can spread during competitions.
This explains why the NBA advised players to avoid high fives and minimise contact with autograph seekers, and then immediately suspended its season when one player tested positive.
The AFL, by comparison, has seemed divided on how to deal with a player possibly contracting coronavirus. It has provided some advice to clubs on prevention strategies, but is leaving it to them to develop their own protocols.
As the Australian leagues grapple with how to respond to the virus, the organisers of the biggest sporting event of the year, the Tokyo Olympics, are still weighing their options.
Though the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic chief have affirmed their commitment to hold the games as planned, the situation remains fluid.
For now, Australian athletes continue to train and prepare for the Olympics as normal, though they are being advised not to travel overseas.
When it comes to domestic sports leagues and sporting events, however, more caution is certainly needed. While the decision to cancel matches does not solely lie with sports authorities, they should be taking more guidance from what is being done by leagues overseas.
It’s surely no longer business as usual and Australian sport officials can no longer just watch this space before deciding how to act.
This story has been updated since publication with the official cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix and the NRL’s decision to play matches in empty stadiums.
Michelle O’Shea, Senior Lecturer Sport Management, Western Sydney University; Chloe Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science, Western Sydney University, and Jessica Richards, Lecturer Sport Business Management, Western Sydney University
Scott Morrison is facing new questioning over the sports rorts affair, after former cabinet minister Bridget McKenzie issued a statement denying she had made last-minute changes to a list of grants.
Evidence to a Senate estimate committee from the Audit Office this week reinforced allegations the Prime Minister’s Office – which exchanged numerous emails with McKenzie’s office during the $100 million grants process – was more deeply involved than Morrison has admitted. He has sought to portray its role as just passing on representations.
McKenzie, then sports minister and the decision-maker for the program, signed off on a list of grants on April 4 2019, and she sent this to the Prime Minister’s Office on April 10.
But in an email from McKenzie’s office to Sport Australia early on April 11, the day the election was called, one project was taken off the list and one added. According to the Audit Office’s evidence, this change was at the request of the PMO. This email was sent minutes after the parliament was dissolved.
Several hours later, with the government in caretaker mode, one project was removed and nine added, in another email from McKenzie’s office to Sport Australia. The Audit evidence about these was that “none were evident as being at the request of the Prime Minister’s Office rather than the minister’s office”.
In her statement, McKenzie said she had “become aware” through the Senate estimates process this week “of changes made to a Ministerial decision brief that I signed in Canberra on 4 April 2019” for the final round of the program.
“The brief authorised approved projects for the third round – this included nine new and emerging projects which, it must be emphasised, had been identified and sent to Sport Australia in March for assessment in line with program guidelines.
“I did not make any changes or annotations to this brief or its attachments after 4 April 2019. My expectation was that the brief would be processed in a timely and appropriate manner,” she said.
“Nevertheless, changes were made and administrative errors occurred in processing the brief.
“I have always taken responsibility for my actions and decisions as a Minister, and this includes actions by my office.
“I was the Minister for Sport and therefore ultimately and entirely responsible for funding decisions that were signed off under my name, including and regrettably, any changes that were made unbeknown to me.”
When a reporter tried to ask Morrison about the McKenzie statement at his Friday news conference, which was about the coronavirus, he cut her off before she could get her words out. He finished the news conference without taking questions on general issues.
McKenzie is due to appear before the Senate committee that is examining the sports rorts affair.
The Audit Office found she had allocated grants on a politically skewed basis, but she and Morrison have always defended the substance of the decisions made.
She was forced to resign from cabinet on the more technical ground she did not declare her membership of sporting organisations that benefited from the scheme. It is well known she feels badly done by, because it was clear Morrison wanted her resignation to try to limit the political damage of the affair.