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Is FFA’s determination to continue with A-League football amidst coronavirus concerns brave or foolish?

The new man at the helm of FFA must be a risk taker, even whilst facing the scary realities of coronavirus.

Monday morning’s announcement that Australian football would proceed in spite of the pandemic seemed somewhat out of step with most current thinking. It also did not align with many of the decisions being made by other sporting organisations, both in Australia and internationally.

James Johnson held a professional and concise press conference to inform the nation of the decision to allow football across the country to continue in the immediate future, with an assurance that the fluid situation would be re-evaluated on a constant basis as the evolving coronavirus story unfolded.

The powers at be were content for the W-League Grand-Final between Melbourne City and Sydney FC to go ahead this weekend, albeit behind closed doors. With just one match remaining in the season, an argument could be made that it is a risk worth taking.

However, endeavouring to continue the A-League season in spite of increased infections around the country and some of the logistical complications that will occur with an immediate change to the schedule, will seem fool hardly to some.

With mandated 14 day quarantine periods now in place for people arriving in both Australia and New Zealand, Johnson’s announcement means that both the Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix will experience such a restriction after returning to Australia. Upcoming matches involving both clubs within that period will be postponed.

Wellington will have their Round 24 clash with Newcastle delayed as well as the already postponed encounter with Sydney FC. Victory will have their matches against Brisbane and Perth pushed back to accommodate the quarantine period.

A-League boss Greg O’Rourke expressed the need for brisk discussions with stadium representatives and clubs in order to re-schedule the final seven rounds of play. Doing so would allow the postponed matches to be held and all teams to play out their allocated 26 games.

It appears mid-week matches will become the norm in an effort to squeeze seven weeks into four.

Despite initially announcing that NPL play would continue, with only people essential to the playing of the game to be in attendance, that decision was reversed on Tuesday. Along with all grassroots football, the game will now go into hiatus until at least April 14.

What Johnson outlined to the media had obviously been carefully considered, in line with the Australian Government’s official advice at the time and after discussions with key stakeholders. However, with most sporting competitions taking the decision to cease indefinitely,  it appears that proceeding with a revised A-League schedule could have serious repercussions for players, staff, referees and their families.

Ploughing forward with a revised schedule in the hope of completing the season and crowning an A-League champion, as well as continuing NPL and grassroots play, would simply have increased human interaction and by extension, the chance of infection. That plan lasted less than a day, with common sense prevailing, aside from the decision to continue the A-League season.

Stoically allowing the matches to proceed does little more that create more human contact than what would take place during a short term suspension of play.

Thus, many will see the FFA decision as irresponsible.

When quizzed by journalists around the ramifications of the loss of gate-takings and the financial hit the game was already taking, Johnson was quick to state that monetary matters were secondary and that the health and wellbeing of the footballing community were of the highest concern, along with the game acting responsibly as a citizen.

Yet with schools acting briskly and postponing events, major sports putting competitions on indefinite hold and all gatherings of 500 people or more now banned in Australia, FFA’s move appears one made by a body determined to proceed in spite of the increased risk that doing so creates.

In reality, the decision could be the most temporary of moves. An infected A-League player would shut the league down instantly and seems inevitable.

No doubt, should the league be ceased at its current point, the ramifications for FFA are profound. Lost revenue stemming from postponed World Cup qualifiers is already on its mind and an Olympics where our national teams were to be showcased appears more and more unlikely

The already financially stretched A-League clubs will suffer further without gate takings and may be forced to forgo corporate benefits from opportunistic businesses looking to align as the season reaches its climax and the finals approach.

A-League wages for both players and staff would come into question, with other codes already toying with notions of broad and mandated percentage pay cuts.

Grassroots registration fees across the country may well be refunded should junior football associations be forced to abandon their seasons and state federations could be left with a financial vacuum and without their most reliable revenue stream.

Without football to cover, media contracts will not be met and the ramifications of adjustments to broadcasting deals to compensate for a lack of content will further hurt the game.

Johnson and O’Rourke have made the call to persist with play and if that proves to be a successful ploy, as infection rates drop and the situation stabilises, they will forever be known as the geniuses who navigated their sport through a period in which others shut down conservatively.

Alternatively, they may be seen as the men who proceeded pig-headedly, when most of the sporting world closed for business.

Time for Australian football to reassess its direction

On Tuesday morning, the A-League followed in the footsteps of the NRL and AFL and postponed its season.

There were last ditch attempts to bring all teams into New South Wales and play the remaining matches of the season there, but ultimately those plans were impossible to pull off due to the impact of the COVID-19 situation.

The FFA will further assess their decision on April 22, in the hope of completing the season later in the year.

The J-League is one of the first football competitions to announce they will aim to restart their competition on May 9. Fans will be allowed inside the stadium; however, every second seat is to be left empty.

While the health of the community is the biggest priority, like other sporting organisations and businesses as a whole, Australian football will face financial problems and uncertainties.

According to the Australian, if the season was entirely cancelled it would allow Fox Sports to send the FFA a breach letter which gives them 10 days’ notice of the cancellation of their deal, because there was “no seamless continuity of services”.

Under the deal, the FFA must provide Fox Sports with a 27-round season as well as a finals series.

If the season is abandoned, these provisions allow Fox Sports to terminate the current $57 million dollar a year contract or break the deal and re-negotiate a much lower price for the rights.

These will be options that Foxtel will continue to explore as they try to address a loss of sports subscribers due to the suspension of the NRL, AFL and A-League.

Speaking to SBS TWG, head of consultancy at Global Media and Sports, Colin Smith, explained:

“The reality is that this is as tough for Fox Sports as well since they’re about to lose most of their Kayo subscribers because there’s literally no content, both locally and internationally.

“They’ll be looking to make savings and won’t be paying rights fees to any sport (NRL and AFL included) while there’s no content.”

Smith also predicted the end could be near for the A-League on Fox Sports.

“In terms of the A-League, I would suggest firstly they won’t get any new payments and secondly, I understand, Fox Sports have the right to withdraw altogether (from the final three years of the six-year $346 million deal).

“They might not embark on that course right now – but I think they’ll be keeping their options open to say ‘thank you, we won’t continue to broadcast … feel free to go with anybody you want to’.

“I would imagine they have Force Majeure clauses and everybody will be going back to read the fine print.”

Smith claims the A-League clubs would have to expect a lower broadcast fee in the future, whether they are with Fox or a service like Optus Sport.

“It’s clear Fox Sports is in cost-cutting mode – and if they were to walk away from football, in the current circumstances you would fully understand it,” he added.

“I think the A-League will need to plan not only for a life without Fox Sports but for a significantly lower rights fee, whomever they deal with (in the future).”

So, how will the possible loss of the Fox Sports deal affect the A-League?

In its current setup, the A-League would be unviable without the Fox contract.

A smaller rights fee (from wherever it comes from) would mean the current A-League model needs significant re-modelling as it can’t be so reliant on a single revenue source from a broadcaster.

The signs are definitely there, that change is needed.

Australian football needs to adapt to a true global standard and think long term, rather than focusing on short term reactionary fixes.

FFA CEO James Johnson knows this. His stand out line in his opening press conference referred to the need to act local and think global.

Plan for a sustainable whole of football pyramid, embrace those participants, clubs, volunteers who know how to operate within their own means.

Give them the opportunity to play at the highest level in Australia.

The possible collapse of the current A-League model will hurt Australian football right now, but an overdue re-build will be successful if the direction is there.

Of course, it will be difficult, it’s easier said than done.

Money will always be a question mark, but the game will always be there.

The best of Asia unite for the AFC’s #BreakTheChain campaign

The AFC

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has united with some of the biggest names in Asian football to launch a new campaign that encourages people from around the world to play their role in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19.

#BreakTheChain carries the message of solidarity in these difficult times and promotes the guidelines put in place by the World Health Organisation (WHO), focusing on good personal hygiene practices, social distancing and respecting the rules of self-quarantine.

The first instalment features eight of Asian football’s finest including 2018 AFC Women’s Player of the Year, Wang Shuang from China PR, Suwon Samsung Bluewings duo Terry Antonis and Doneil Henry as well as Korea Republic and Chelsea FC star Ji So-yun. The quartet are just some of Asian football’s stars who are doing their part to support communities across Asia.

It is part of the AFC’s continued commitment to its Member Associations and the Asian football family.

“In these unprecedented and challenging times, the AFC extends its wish that all members of the Asian football community remain safe and healthy,” said AFC President Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.

“Football will have an important role to play in the weeks and months ahead as the world returns to normality, but now our focus is firmly on protecting the well-being of all those who are involved in our great game.”

He also praised the AFC Member Associations for their cooperation and valuable feedback following the AFC’s decision to postpone several competitions, matches and events as part of efforts to ensure the safety and wellbeing of teams, players, fans and all stakeholders.

“These changes to our calendar were aimed at ensuring the safety and health of our Members, their officials, their players, their staff and, of course, the millions of fans who engage with football in Asia each year,” he added.

“Their health is, and always will be, our priority and that is why it is important that the AFC and all our Member and Regional Associations work with Governments and Health Agencies to curtail the threat of this virus and that everyone should take all precautions.

“The AFC strongly urges all its Members to follow the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to exercise the highest levels of hygiene and are pleased to note that some Members have also declared a ‘work from home’ initiative.

“The AFC has built its strong foundations on unity and solidarity – particularly in the face of adversity – during the last six years and this situation is another challenge which we will take on together to protect not only our communities but also the future of our game.

“Of course, the AFC will take a strong lead and will, as always, be on hand to offer advice and assistance to any of our Member and Regional Associations in these uncertain times.”

La Liga’s FIFA 20 Esports tournament attracts over a million viewers

La Liga’s charity FIFA 20 Challenge Esports tournament held over the weekend had more than one million viewers in total who tuned in, according to the Spanish top-flight soccer league’s organising body.

Collectively there were 18 teams from Spain’s top-flight who took part in the competition on 22nd March, which was streamed live via YouTube, Twitch, the LaLigaSportsTV over-the-top (OTT) platform, as well as on La Liga’s official social media channels to ensure everyone could get access to the coverage.

Barcelona and Real Mallorca weren’t allowed to participate due to their sponsorship with Konami – the makers of FIFA 20’s main competitor, Pro Evolution Soccer.

The tournament was organised by Esports commentator Ibai Llanos and endorsed by La Liga, where it took shape in partnership with Spanish banking group Santander, La Liga’s main title sponsor, as well as EA Sports, the producers of the most recent FIFA 20 title.

It raised more than €140,000 ($250,000) to fight Covid-19, as Spain has become one of the hardest hit countries in the world.

La Liga commentator Miguel Ángel Román joined Llanos in presenting the matches, and players gave interviews in the aftermath as an effort to replicate the feel of a traditional match day experience.

The tournament was created and launched whilst the La Liga season is suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic. The final itself saw more than 170,000 viewers tune in as Real Madrid striker Marco Asensio beat Leganés player Aitor Ruibal to claim the title.

In terms of linear distribution, La Liga’s domestic broadcast partner Movistar+ also showed matches on Spanish television, via its Deportes 1 channel, while Eleven Sports also aired the tournament in Belgium and Portugal.

La Liga has said that it is also carrying out further analysis to clarify the tournament’s reach via the #LaLigaSantanderChallenge hashtag, which was shared by influencers, clubs, and players, as well as Movistar and La Liga’s US broadcast partner, BeIN Sports.

Judging by the numbers for this tournament, it proved to be the winner as gaming proves popular while people are having to self isolate.

The EA Sports FIFA franchise has connected fans all around the world, continuing to be a popular source of competitive online gameplay.

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