Tuesday 17 March 2020

🎶God help me, I had COVID 19 🎶*

(* not personally, no. I'm just pleased with the gag and running it into the ground appropriately. Now, on with the scheduled misery)

'May you live in interesting times' they say. And here we are. Just as Australian rules football reached peak professionalism and clubs achieved total control over players, along comes a super virus that blows the doors off the sport and leaves it in its most perilous state since World War II.

What we know at the time of writing is that the season has been reduced to 17 games, and will start with games in front of empty stadiums but if one player blows a fever it might be over in an instant. What a time to be alive. At least temporarily.

You can understand why it's happening, but shutting the gates is one of the wildest angles in the history of the game. Even when the Spanish Flu was clobbering people at a rapid rate in 1919 the paying customer was still welcome. Fans of omens will adjust their collar nervously at the news that we didn't win a match that season, but at least they got a full 18 game program in.

Not since 1943 has a regular season had less than 18 matches per club. Then they had the bloodiest conflict in the history of mankind to blame, with the war escalating to the point where we only had six of the premiership side of two seasons earlier on the list and Geelong was forced out of the competition due to travel restrictions. The VFL had a unique solution to having an uneven number of teams, dumping the last placed side after Round 10 and playing five more games between the survivors. This time everyone plays 17 - in theory anyway, quite literally anything could happen between now and time running out to get the season finished.

It will come as news to the people trying to look humble with "my grandfather went to war and I had to sit on the couch. I'LL BE FINE" Facebook posts, but until it mutates and we start bleeding from every orifice there is no fair and legitimate comparison between Coronavirus (or COVID-19, if you prefer to be formal/do headline gags) and war, but think of all the challenges of the years since that haven't caused footy to grind to a halt. Since then a couple of rounds were delayed by weather, the goalposts were torched at Waverley, and one game was understandably called off when a coach got murdered, but even after five decades of Cold War where we were one accidental button press away from the nuclear apocalypse, nothing has seen games trimmed off the schedule, or the widespread changes expected to help keep things going.

For mine, I'm happy to keep playing if they can find players to do it. I think we can handle a few hundred people going out in public without it becoming the tipping point that wipes out the human race. If any players don't want to play then they can stand aside and Jay Lockhart can win the Brownlow. Views amongst fans vary, but as we'll get to shortly I think simply getting something on TV is important. This will pass, I don't want to come out on the other side without our clubs. Feels selfish, but bad luck. Call me when societies into a re-run of Threads and I'll reconsider. You've got to give the people some entertainment, it's not like the community is going to pull together and do great things without sports.

As trite as it is to say, things may never be the same again. We're at the early stages of this fiasco, but I'm struggling to think of many more significant events in my lifetime. The first major news story I remember was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union going under, but that was a win for our side. Also, nobody took that lot seriously by the late 80s anyway. The closest I got to a personal rivalry with the Iron Curtain was Debbie Flintoff-King beating them in a photo at the '88 Olympics as a young Bruce McAvaney nearly burst his o-ring in elation.

Next cab off the rank was the original recipe Gulf War, which not only did we win in a canter but also provided the novelty of being able to watch bombs dropped down people's chimney. For the rest of the 90s I was too much of a self-indulgent sulky teenager to be moved by world events. Can't retrospectively claim to have been hanging off the war in Yugoslavia or the Rwandan Genocide, and couldn't for the life of me understand why my mum started crying when Princess Di stacked it.

At this stage September 11 remains clubhouse leader based on the near two decades of flow-on effects. I reckon that was the first time I ever got a shameful rush about being alive for a earth-shattering calamity. There's no pleasure derived from these things, it's just an uncontrollable adrenaline hit that you feel bad about afterwards. Don't suppose Channel 10 are ever going to get to that episode of Sports Tonight that I was waiting for when the second plane came from nowhere out of the corner of the screen and... well, you know...

That was easy to treat like a video game, our current situation as left me in gloom, despair and agony. People who live in countries where this sort of crisis is par for the course are saying "welcome to the party dickheads", while we throw haymakers at each other for the opportunity to buy toilet paper but you can only deal with what's in front of you. I certainly won't be putting on a woe is me routine when I inevitably catch it, especially when you consider that people in nursing homes are sitting around waiting for the bullet with their name on it while the rest of us go "nah, she'll be right it's only a flu". I am legitimately flat even before anybody I know has been affected.

Under the circumstances the fate of a few footy teams isn't all that important, but nevertheless it still means a lot to me and many others, and my concern is that by the time this is over there will be a lot of clubs teetering on the brink of disaster. My immediate concern is with the Melbourne Football Club, but should revenue pour out of the game in the next few months then I reckon everyone other than Adelaide, Collingwood, Essendon, Hawthorn, Richmond and West Coast will come up skint. Can't even hold a public gathering to rattle the tin.

This feels a bit "the sky is falling", but I have my reasons for concern. Last season we lost money on a $48.5 million turnover, with gate reciepts accounting of $6.2 million. This year we should have banked at least $2 million more than that, now every week without crowds there's a hole being torn in that. Then there's the $10.2m from corporate hospitality and sponsorship. At least if games are played on TV we can give the sponsors some value, but hospitality is down the tubes, merchandising is finished, and membership sales will have dried up to somewhere between nil and bugger all (update: not quite, well done humans).

Arguably we sold the pokies and banked the cash just the right time before all but the most self-destructive gambling addict thinks twice about putting their finger on a germy screen next to somebody hacking up their lungs coughing, and if you add that money to the property asset of the Bentleigh Club we might just get through this crisis ok, but where's the cushion against future suffering?

Leighoak has been sold, the pokies licence gone, and if things become grim in the future there's nothing other than the Bentleigh Club to sell. The $11 million currently in the bank sure isn't going to be replenished through simply being good guys at sports, this century we've made a $1.3m operating profit once and have lost at least that much five times. I think we're better placed than at least two Victorian clubs if the AFL declare their version of The Purge but I feel cheated that we've worked out way off the canvas only to see financial security disappear again.

There's an idea that the AFL will be the Bank of Bailout for clubs that get into trouble, but where's the money going to come from if they're in the hole as well? Everyone hung shit on the NRL asking for a government bailout but maybe they're the smart ones. The government will inevitably tell them to piss off but maybe they're trying to signal - without creating too much panic - that they're so indebted to broadcasting revenue that the competition is rooted without it.

What I need to understand before I decide to get really morose or not is the AFL's exposure if they can't fulfill the 198 games that were sold to broadcasters. Their desperation to play the lot by any means necessary is tinged with the sort of panic consistent with having to write cheques to Channel 7, Foxtel, radio stations, Telstra and god knows who else if the games aren't played.

Channel 7 lost $444 million in the last financial year, they're not writing off five weeks of premium content (cliche) out of goodwill. Similarly, Foxtel is about as financially secure as the Venezuelan Bolivar, so they'll also be wanting a refund if entitled to it. If they haven't got a clause that gives them money back if the agreed product isn't delivered then their negotiator was a bum. Maybe there's an insurance option that will cover both parties? I'm sure companies (probably Zurich, likely to go bust under the pressure and cost us a sponsor) would have been happy to take the money from sporting competitions to insure their season when the only reason a major sport has ever had its competition curtailed since the invention of television has been industrial strife.

For now we can write off a large part of the gate receipts, but as long as we can find a way to play Anzac Eve, Queen's Birthday, and the game in Alice Springs things might not turn out too badly. But what are the chances? If Dick Wilkins can catch the thing from mingling with the stars of Hollywood so can 700 professional players, any number of coaches, and the semi-professional ring-ins required to play a condensed season. They might get to 17 games eventually but there's as much chance of them in a row as there is of Oscar McDonald winning the Coleman. Whether it means in-season breaks or them just shutting down will depend firstly on whether governments make them stop, and secondly on how much ending the season early is going to cost.

As far as I can tell the full broadcast rights agreement isn't available anywhere, but let's say on average it costs the league $500,000 for every senior men's game that isn't televised. That's less than a third of what you get from dividing the total annual payday by 198 games, so maybe I'm being too conservative. I'll update if anyone can provide more realistic insight.

Assuming that the maths randomly plucked from my keister are right, the five cancelled rounds will cost the AFL $20 million. Last year, after distributions to clubs, special funds etc... they had a surplus of $27.9 million. By far the biggest expense was distribution to clubs (for instance, we got $16 million from them), so there's not a lot of fat to cut if they desperately need money to keep the existing clubs alive. People will demand the slashing of executive salaries but that's not going to pay for much, and I can't see them risking a critical beating by axing AFLW to save $20 million. More than half their revenue came from the broadcast rights, so you can understand why they'd be so keen to get anything resembling the regular season on TV.

I'm well into the conspiracy theory of a Victorian club being welded to Gold Coast in order to open a spot for a new Tasmanian side but in this case I'm prepared to trust that the AFL is doing the right thing to try and keep everybody alive. Which is like the frog carrying the scorpion across the river, but what's the other option? Go all Premier League and sell clubs to Middle Eastern oil interests? Clubs could borrow more money but that's just going to create a death spiral of debt that will end in them having to be bailed out or euthanised further down the track.

That's the cheerful picture of the long term future of small clubs, what about the short term. The upside to no crowds is that if Sunday goes ahead we might get a free kick in Perth for once. In the unlikely event of the season continuing beyond that, the reduction to 17 games means not playing anyone twice. Technically it's fair, but the T20 of season lengths, greatly reducing ebb/flow and the opportunity for teams to either storm the finals from a mile back or die in the arse from a great height.

We lose second winnable games against Gold Coast and St Kilda but dodge the return against Collingwood and Freo in Perth. I presume they won't be cruel enough to take our Alice Springs payday away, so if they don't radically alter the fixture after the first four games that also knocks out a visit to Adelaide Oval. However, anything could happen from here, up to and including not a single ball being bounced and the game being bombed back to the stone age.

One idea is to smash as many games out as possible early in the season just in case it's shut down later, which seems like both the most cynical thing you've ever heard in your life, and confirmation that the league (trickling down to clubs) are in more trouble than the early settlers if TV games are lost. To faciliate this they're talking about shortened quarters, and at this point I'd like to switch back into conspiracy mode. Steve Hocking would have a Corona Boner at the chance to trial this so they can leave it that way once the game goes back to normal. Somebody ask Gil for a commitment that the rules will return to what they were before crisis mode and see if his eyes swivel about uncontrollably.

They're also talking about increasing the interchange cap. Hopefully that has a positive effect on scoring (in proportion to the length of the game) so we can rule out this ridiculous theory that the game would improve if you deliberately made players tired.

To faciliate the playing of games on four or five day breaks there's also talk about having yet another draft, this time for temporary players. With the VFL shut down until the end of May you don't want to go down this path too quickly, otherwise you'll just be left with five, 10, 20 more players hanging around doing nothing. The part of me that loves statistical anomalies (which is probably the same part that perks up for disasters) and obscure players is the only part getting any enjoyment out of this debacle. Maybe we should do something really unusual and draft Karen Paxman, that would throw the cat amongst the pigeons and add some much needed interest to what's otherwise going to be a shithouse season.

Everything is going to shit, but if you're looking for a positive omen in these times of strife, we won the flag from sixth in a 17 game season in 1900. It doesn't matter how many games are played in the regular season, as long as the finals are played as expected the flag is valid. There's something to aspire to.

Just our luck that we'll Bradbury our way through to the Grand Final and it will come too late to be played at the MCG due to a clash with the West Indies - New Zealand T20 BLOCKBUSTER being played there on October 25. Assuming the guaranteed Grand Final ticket that has given me so much joy over the last decade would still be valid I'd be sweet to get in, but if you thought the price of flights for the prelim was bad, imagine the cost of getting to Perth for this? Don't care, will accept a lift from Bradley John Murdoch if that's what it takes. Maybe by then it'll cost less to fly cross country than catch a train to the MCG?

More likely scenario - we lose the first two games and spend the next 15 (probably spread over 45 weeks) scrambling just to stay in contention before finishing 10th. Anything lower and forget Coronavirus, I'll be offering to test Ebola vaccines.

I have no good way to end this post, so let's part until Sunday (maybe) by agreeing that weird shit is happening, and given the pace of the weird shit there may be further crisis updates required by the end of the week. In my book (which is the perfect length to read while in self-isolation) I had a back cover quote that said "the man who laughs has simply not yet had the terrible news", and that feels equally relevant now.

By the weekend I'll need a distraction and opportunity to yell obscenities at the TV. For now I'm almost at the point of applying a hot towel to the forehead and coughing so I can lock myself away for 14 days and not have to have every workplace conversation revolve around this bloody virus. Give me a fortnight away to crawl through newspaper archives on Trove and maybe when I come out this will all be over. Until next time sports fans...

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