Even if the world does go back to normal, AFL football may not if supporters lose faith in the organisation

Western Bulldogs' players warm up in front of empty stands prior to the round six AFLW match against and the Fremantle Dockers last month in Melbourne. Those round one matches played in completely empty stadiums were described as hollow and subdued without the fans. Photo: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images
Western Bulldogs' players warm up in front of empty stands prior to the round six AFLW match against and the Fremantle Dockers last month in Melbourne. Those round one matches played in completely empty stadiums were described as hollow and subdued without the fans. Photo: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

The world has changed. Perhaps irrevocably. And as with any global catastrophe of the past, we may not even be able to appreciate just how much until many years after the disruption settles down. Hundreds of thousands of lives will have been lost, economies crushed, the rules and mores of how society conducts itself bent, perhaps broken beyond recognition.

It's a grim picture. And it puts ruminating about such comparative trivialities as sport in sobering context.

We wax lyrical about the importance of games to our lives, particularly those ball games which inspire such feverish emotions, but it's crises like this pandemic which remind us powerfully that for all the energy we expend on them, they really are just games. That realisation, though, does have important ramifications for those sporting bodies currently trying to salvage what they can from the human wreckage, including, of course, the AFL.

The league and its clubs are desperately trying to engineer crisis management. And in the circumstances, not necessarily doing a bad job. There are immediate priorities being attended to, like how the format of this season will even look if and when we resume play.

Ensuring financial survival is obviously No.1 priority, and while the measures already taken have been drastic, like 80 per cent of staff being stood down, the AFL's securing of a $600 million line of credit through the NAB and ANZ banks provides at least some sort of temporary safety blanket. The AFL has publicly committed to the retention of all 18 clubs in their current state, and importantly, the continued growth of women's football via AFLW. That's at least some sort of reassurance.

But there's a broader negotiation between football and its public which must also be treated with the utmost care and sensitivity. Because for all the financial and structural guarantees, the AFL can't afford to emerge from the current state of affairs with a support base which has lost any shred of faith in or respect for not just the organisation running the game, but the same clubs to which they've committed their time, energies and considerable money. That makes the to-ing and fro-ing going on in the public domain about the status of club memberships just as crucial a negotiation as those with the banks, the player's union or the broadcasters.

We've already seen heated debate in the media about supporters' rights to refunds on membership levies for which they may very well see no material return in the way of actual games of football. That's a sign in itself of how desperately all clubs need every last shred of revenue. For the clubs, each individual membership sold is a drop in a much larger ocean. Nonetheless, memberships and reserved seats are hardly cheap at the best of times. And certainly not so now with so many people already having lost employment and scratching around for any possible savings to the household budget.

Even the "good news" stories are a potential double-edged sword. Essendon star Michael Hurley last week rightly won plaudits for committing to pay the membership fees of a family which was devastated to realise it simply could no longer afford to commit to the cause. But they are hardly Robinson Crusoe. What will the Bombers, or any club for that matter, do when they are inevitably approached by other families who might be in even more difficulty? Rebuffs to a flood of such requests might be understandable, but could also be a sizeable public relations disaster.

The AFL Players' Association has already had a taste of how carefully one must tread in the current environment. Its acceptance of pay cuts of up to 70 per cent if the 2020 season doesn't get underway come June, which now appears inevitable, is a major concession. But even the initial ambit claims painted in the public consciousness an unflattering picture of professional sports stars living in a bubble, oblivious to what most of their fans were going through. That may not be the case, but perception is reality, and particularly now, the opportunities to correct even inaccurate perceptions are limited.

The AFL football operations department, meanwhile, has another fine line to tread. It goes without saying the league desperately needs at least some sort of football season to take place to help fill the coffers. But at what point will any sort of format agreed upon simply to let the games go on begin to the public to smack of a completely contrived and compromised affair which can never be taken seriously? We already have a shortened season and shortened games.

Would the football public really "buy" a 2020 AFL premiership which didn't commence until July or August and in which a premier was crowned only days before Christmas? It may not seem the biggest issue right now for those scrambling to get things underway.

But the prospect of the 2020 champion team forever carrying an asterisk beside its name is one which could damage the game's integrity in the eyes of its most important stakeholders, not to mention compromise the history books. It's a very fine line, but one which has enormous ramifications for the game's entire future if the AFL or its clubs tread the wrong side of it. Those round one matches played in completely empty stadiums had a hollow, subdued feel to them, regardless of the results and the quality of the games. The symbolism was powerful.

And in football's bid to get back to normal at a time when even the most devout supporters have bigger issues to confront, the game simply can't afford to get its fans off-side either by being insensitive to their difficulties, or, ironically, "cheapening" its product, even temporarily, for expediency.

Do so and even if the world does go back to normal, AFL football may not.

This story AFL can't afford to lose supporter faith first appeared on The Canberra Times.