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Mixed fortunes for Australian rights-holders amid Covid-19 crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Australia’s major sports with varying degrees of severity. The country’s sports were in markedly different positions when they were shut down, depending on their calendars and the financial health of their businesses.

The two major football codes – Australian rules football and rugby league – had barely begun their 2020 seasons when they ground to a halt in March. The Australian Football League season was suspended on March 22 after one week of matches in empty stadiums, while its female equivalent, the AFLW, was cancelled midway through its finals’ series. The following day, the National Rugby League pressed the pause button after only two rounds.

Both leagues have announced massive wage cuts, with AFL salaries slashed by at least 50 per cent and NRL players facing a 75-per-cent cut.

The AFL won’t restart until June at the earliest, with the date to be reviewed at the end of April. The season will be cut from 22 games per team to 17. A proposal that games will be composed of 16-minute, instead of 20-minute, quarters is under consideration.

The NRL is planning to extend the current season until late December if necessary. League boss Peter V’Landys has warned that cancelling the season would cause a financial crisis for the sport, including the loss of an estimated A$13m ($8m) of media rights revenue for every round unplayed, and A$500m ($308m) in commercial revenue for the entire year.

On March 15, V’Landys pleaded for help from the government, saying it must “assist us in this crisis because it is not our own doing”. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a fan of NRL team Cronulla Sharks, brushed aside the plea.

On March 30, the NRL announced its own rescue package. V’Landys and league chief executive Todd Greenberg pledged A$40m ($24.6m) to the 16 clubs – around A$2.5m each – to be paid between April and October to help cover their operational costs. The NRL has also cut its operating budget by more than a half, put 95 per cent of its staff on three weeks’ leave, and is targeting a 20-week season beginning on July 1.

Lou Sticca, managing director of sports marketing agency Tribal Sports Group, told SportBusiness he thought the AFL had handled things much better than the NRL, which had initially acted “almost like a spoiled brat” by looking for outside help. “I think they lost a lot of credibility by blaming everyone else, instead of simply looking after business,” Sticca said.

“AFL is no doubt the biggest and best-run sport in Australia, and they’ve continued to underpin the very existence of clubs through their cashed-up head office.”

Cricket’s narrow miss

Due to its calendar, cricket was the sport most exposed during this summer’s bushfire emergency but has been the least impacted by Covid-19. The majority of the 2019-20 international season was completed by the time the pandemic stopped play.

There were some cancellations. Only one match of the three-match one-day international series between Australia and New Zealand – played behind closed doors at the Sydney Cricket Ground on March 12 – was possible before Cricket Australia called it off. The subsequent three-game T20 series in New Zealand was also cancelled.

But the 23-match International Cricket Council Women’s T20 World Cup, held between February 12 and March 8, was completed with barely a hitch, including the final between Australia and India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, played before an enormous crowd of 86,174.

“Cricket Australia is relatively fortunate in that we had completed the majority of the 2019-20 season when quarantine measures came into effect,” CA’s head of communications Alex Brown told SportBusiness.

“We won’t know the full answer [of how cricket will be affected commercially] until quarantine restrictions have been lifted. As with most industries, the faster we as a society can ‘flatten the curve’, the lesser the financial and commercial impact.”

CA’s digital team has been keeping fans engaged on its social and digital platforms with classic match videos, deep-dive interviews and breaking news.

The next major international cricket event on Australian soil is the men’s ICC T20 World Cup, from October 18 to November 5. The event will feature 16 nations, and six Australian states will stage 45 matches.

“Cricket Australia is planning for all possible outcomes for the 2020-21 season,” Brown said when asked about contingency plans for the T20 World Cup. “We will continue to take advice from relevant government agencies, infectious diseases experts and our own medical team as we chart the course ahead.”

Bad timing for rugby and football

Both the Super Rugby rugby union and A-League football seasons were interrupted at inconvenient times in terms of their match schedules and commercial activities.

The five-nation Super Rugby club competition was suspended on March 14 after seven rounds. Rugby Australia has also suspended talks with media companies for the media rights for Super Rugby and other domestic properties for 2021 onwards. The organisation has been attempting to sell the rights since last year and is facing losing its 25-year partnership with Fox Sports. Fox is understood to have turned its back on the sport after RA rejected a A$40m (US$24.6)-per-year offer in February. Fox’s current deal runs 2016 to 2020. Telco Optus and free-to-air broadcaster Network Ten are understood to be among the media companies interested in acquiring the rights. But, ultimately, the lack of competition from Fox means that RA is expected to see a drop in its media rights income in the next cycle.

Football’s A-League, which also has a media rights deal with Fox, is almost as precariously placed as rugby union. The league was due to finish its 2019-20 season a little more than a month after it was suspended on March 24. Like rugby, the A-League has experienced dwindling television audiences. Fox recently trimmed staff in its football department and appears to have lost some enthusiasm for the sport.

Fox’s media rights deal with the Football Federation of Australia is worth an average of A$58m per season over the six seasons from 2017-18 to 2022-23. The deal covers rights for the A-League, women’s W-League, and home national team friendlies.

Also in football, a May 23rd ‘legends’ football match in Sydney aimed at raising money for bushfire victims – the ‘#FootballForFires’ match – is being postponed, according to organiser Sticca. The game was to feature retired international stars including Didier Drogba, Park Ji-sung and Dwight Yorke, and local stars like Mark Bosnich and John Aloisi.

“It’s unfortunate, but we will reschedule the #FootballForFires game for later in the year,” Sticca said, who has also pushed back his annual Money in Sport conference in Brisbane from April to September 8-9.

From the ashes

The more forward-looking in the Australian sports industry are already considering how the landscape will look after the pandemic passes.

Sticca expects several stakeholders to take the opportunity to reduce costs: “I think everyone will use this disaster to reset or recalibrate their sports businesses. Player wages and administrators’ salaries had blown out of all proportion, so that might change now.

“Television companies may also see this as a way of cutting TV rights’ costs which were also way out of control.”

Sticca thinks Australia’s less high-profile sports, who have had to fight the hardest for their position in recent years, to weather the storm better than the bigger properties. “Sports like A-League football and NBL [basketball], which have traditionally struggled hand-to-mouth, could be best placed to survive comfortably…Both have seen massive grassroots growth, while their bigger competitors have concentrated on their top-end games.

“Everyone in the Australian sports industry is hurting right now,” he adds. “But like all downturns, some of us will come out stronger, while others will sit there and wait for someone else to solve their issues.”

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