A-League bosses have spoken about the implications of more disruption for the 2021-22 season, with over half the Australian population currently under lockdown or restrictions.
The English Premier League returned last weekend with packed stadiums full of ecstatic fans, for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible for supporters to attend.
Those pictures are a far cry from the current sporting climate in Australia. Across the East Coast, professional sporting games are being played behind closed doors, while the 2021 State League in New South Wales was abandoned last week.
Games during the 2020-21 season were played with reduced capacity for spectators, depending on government restrictions.
10 weeks out from the start of the 2021-22 season, the intersection of politics, health and sport will continue to decide whether the season can kick off without disruption.
Danny Townsend, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Sydney FC and Australian Professional Leagues (APL), believes that the APL has learned from running the A-League through the COVID pandemic.
“You’ve got to plan for everything. What we’ve learned from COVID so far is that you have to be nimble and make plans A, B, C, D, and E. So we will plan for all sorts of different outcomes,” he said.
Perth Glory FC CEO Tony Pignata is one of many in the role who have plenty of time to consider what is ahead until the new A-League season begins, despite the uncertainty.
“October 30 is the start of the season. You look at today, Melbourne has gone into curfew, Canberra has cases, Northern Territory has cases. So it’s not ideal or where we like to be,” he said.
“If the government is pushing vaccinations hopefully by then restrictions are easing a little bit and borders are opening.”
Perth Glory was able to play most of their home games of the 2020-21 season in front of their fans, albeit at a reduced capacity. They still felt the impacts through reduced income from members and sponsorship.
Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan last week signalled that the state’s border would stay shut until Australia reached at least 70% vaccination rate, and the state may remain closed off depending on the situation around the country.
Pignata is focusing on preparing for the season, despite these potential roadblocks.
“I’m not exactly sure what our premier said, I know he did say that even if we get to a certain percentage (of vaccination) and there were cases over there he would consider closing the borders still,” he said.
“But for now we are just focusing on getting the squad training, getting fit, and working through the fixtures. That’s what we are doing at the moment.”
Townsend explains the APL are watching the actions of state government closely, as they prepare for the A-League season to kick off on the October 30.
“We need to get clear on what the various states are doing and what their plans are. New South Wales has made its position on what it’s doing pretty clear, and as we get more clarity on the other states we will know what we are dealing with,” Townsend said.
“I still think you can’t sit and wait, you need to start scenario planning, which is what we are doing.”
A large part of the previous A-League season was played in the ‘hub’ format, with clubs based in New South Wales, away from their home grounds.
Both Pignata and Townsend agree there would be an impact on clubs if this were to happen again.
“Not only for the players, who are away from their families for so long, but also the financial impact on clubs, with memberships, corporate hospitality. All clubs had a massive financial hit last year, and it would disastrous if that happened again,” Pignata said.
“It’s not disastrous, but it isn’t ideal. Once again you have to think of ways to get the competition started and moving, and we will do whatever we have to do. But also we have a long way to go, we are still 2 and half months away from our first game, and what we’ve learned is a hell of a lot of changes in 2 and half months,” Townsend said.
“It would be premature for us to try to predict what we are going to do now, and irresponsible for us to do that publicly before we know what we are dealing with. We will continue to monitor the situation and plan accordingly.”
Pignata adds the clubs have yet to discuss any alternative plans for the beginning of the A-League season.
“It’s something that I supposed we will need to look at, but we haven’t had any of those discussions at club level yet,” he said.
A key metric for crowds to be present at games is the uptake in vaccination in Australia, according to Townsend.
“If we can get to a point where we’ve got vaccinations to the level where at least in New South Wales you can start to bring crowds back into stadiums, that’ll be a good thing for us,” he said.
“We will see, we live in interesting times.”