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NRL and AFL suspend seasons, face up to major financial impact

NRL CEO Todd Greenberg (L) and ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys (R) speak to the media during a press conference on March 23 (by Matt King/Getty Images)

Australia’s National Rugby League has today (Monday) followed the Australian Football League in suspending its 2020 season amid the Covid-19 outbreak, with officials stating the sport is set to face the biggest financial crisis in its history.

While the majority of the world’s major sports league and competitions have either suspended play or postponed their events, Australia’s top competitions have continued in recent weeks. However, this stance has now changed, with the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) and the NRL today announcing they will suspend the 2020 Premiership season until further notice.

The organisations said the decision has been made in response to both the revised medical advice from government health officials and biosecurity experts, coupled with the travel bans introduced by the Queensland and New Zealand governments. The ARLC will monitor the situation daily and review the competition next month.

ARLC chairman Peter V’landys said: “This is a dark day in our game’s history. But we had to take this unprecedented action as there was simply no other option. We have always said we would continue but only as long it was safe to do so.

“When the advice tells us we can no longer guarantee player safety because of the rapid rate at which infection is spreading, we must act accordingly. We will monitor the advice daily and recommence when it is simply safe and prudent to do so.”

The NRL had been weighing up its options, including dividing the competition into two conferences across two states and relocating the entire league to a small Queensland community just outside Gladstone. Today’s announcement comes with the first two rounds of the season having been completed, the first weekend with fans and the second behind closed doors. The ARLC is said to have discussed the option for matches to be played as late as December this year.

V’landys said the decision to postpone games, which will reportedly cost an estimated Aus$13m (€7m/$7.46m) for each round that isn’t completed, represents “probably the biggest financial crisis the game will face in its history”. Today’s decision comes before round three of the season, with the League’s next payment from broadcast partners due on April 1. V’landys has previously stated that pay-television operator Foxtel and commercial broadcaster Nine couldn’t be expected to pay up if games aren’t being played.

The NRL’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement with its players contains a clause for the salary cap to be lowered if the league loses revenue. Talks will reportedly commence this week with players’ union the RLPA about the implications of the suspension.

NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg said: “We’re at a moment in time where the game’s cost base will need to be reset and that cost base is across the entire sport, from players and clubs, to central administration.

“Everyone has a role to play in resetting the cost base. I think if we’re being realistic about what we’re facing the resetting of the cost base is across the entire game and that includes every single one of them, including me.”

Aussie rules league the AFL yesterday announced that it would immediately move to suspend the 2020 Premiership season at the conclusion of the weekend’s matches and conclude the AFL Women’s (AFLW) season as a result of the continuing spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Sunday’s match between West Coast Eagles and Melbourne was the final match before the AFL season went into a temporary halt with the suspension of all games until May 31. The AFL said it will review the situation by the end of April to determine whether a further suspension period would be required.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said over the next 48 hours the League and clubs would detail the “drastic and immediate steps” needed to be taken to cut costs. “To say this is the most serious threat to our game in 100 years is an understatement,” he said. “It is unprecedented in its impact. It is unprecedented in the impact it is having on our game and the wider community, and as a community and as a code, we all need to take the unprecedented and required actions to get through this together.”

The AFL last week committed to commencing its 2020 season as scheduled on Thursday, albeit behind closed doors, with McLachlan stating that the game “can’t stand still”. Speaking yesterday, McLachlan said the AFL had been given advice by the government and the chief medical officers that it was right to start the season, but that advice had also included that it would be paused at some stage.

He said: “It was the right decision to start the season, and clearly it is now the right decision to stop. That is why we have acted immediately to take this step to play our role in the community and to protect the long-term future of our game.”

McLachlan said the AFL plan was to play all remaining 144 games plus finals this year and the competition would need to remain “agile and flexible” on when those games were scheduled and when play returned. He said the AFL was prepared to run as late as possible in 2020 to complete the season if it was required.

The moves by the NRL and AFL means football’s A-League remains one of the few sports competitions operating amid Covid-19. Football Federation Australia (FFA) today scheduled a media conference for Tuesday to make a “significant announcement” regarding the conduct of the 2019-20 A-League season.