Australia’s hugely popular Aussie Rules suspended its season Sunday in what it called “the most serious threat to our game in 100 years” after the government imposed new travel restrictions to contain the coronavirus.
The move after just one match of the season — played in empty stadiums this weekend — was unprecedented for a sport that first established a league in 1896.
“To say this is the most serious threat to our game in 100 years is an understatement,” Australian Football League (AFL) chief Gillon McLachlan said, with lucrative broadcast commitments at stake.
“It is unprecedented in its impact. It is unprecedented in the impact it is having on our game and the wider community. As a community and as a code, we all need to take the unprecedented and required actions to get through this together.”
A dynamic game similar to Ireland’s Gaelic football, Australian Rules is the country’s biggest spectator sport with 100,014 fans cramming the Melbourne Cricket Ground for its Grand Final last year, won by Richmond.
But there will be no more action until at least May 31 after Prime Minister Scott Morrison recommended against all “non-essential” domestic travel.
Australia had already sealed off its borders to non-residents, with more than 1,300 cases and seven deaths from Covid-19.
Further complicating matters, the states of New South Wales and Victoria plan a shutdown of non-key services over the next 48 hours.
Other states, including South Australia, have, or plan to, close their borders, imposing a compulsory 14-day self-isolation period on anyone entering.
The AFL has 18 teams based across five states, with the majority from Victoria.
Two other key sports, rugby league and football, continue to play without spectators, although they too will be reviewing the situation.
McLachlan said the AFL would revisit their decision at the end of April and decide whether to extend the lockout. All club training was put on hold.
But he remained confident that all 144 games could be played in an extended season.
“The competition will need to remain agile and flexible on when those games are scheduled and when play returns,” he said. “We are prepared to run as late as possible in 2020 to complete the season if it was required.”
In announcing the new travel restrictions Sunday, Morrison suggested the National Rugby League (NRL) and AFL could play on.
“I am sure we can work with both of them (NRL and AFL), with their respective state and medical chief officers at a federal level,” he said.
“If there are new arrangements that need to be put in place to protect the health and safety of everyone, that may be possible.”