While sport around the world is closing down, the AFL has bucked the trend in deciding to push ahead with Round 1.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said the 17-round season will “become a 153-round journey”, saying the league needed to be “agile and flexible”.
In the wake of the abandonment of Australian Formula One Grand Prix and the one-day international Trans Tasman cricket series, the AFL’s move on Wednesday night prompted surprise and outrage as some fans echoed the “cash is king” criticism levelled by F1 ace Lewis Hamilton last week.
The 2020 AFL competition will begin on schedule, with reigning premiers Richmond to host Carlton at the MCG on Thursday night, although the league is clearly planning for a shutdown sooner rather than later.
The decision to push ahead came after a marathon AFL Commission meeting, followed by a teleconference with all 18 club chief executives on Wednesday.
Games will be shortened, with 16-minute quarters plus time on as the AFL looks to compress as many games into the first part of the season in the expectation that games may have to be abandoned.
AAP reported 88 per cent of AFL players voted on Monday night in favour of starting the season this week despite the outbreak of COVID-19, which has prompted sporting leagues around the world to shut down.
Should just one team member test positive for the coronavirus, like formula one, the pressure would go on the AFL to stop its season.
Games will be held behind closed doors, but the decision means the league can attempt to bank some games before an expected shutdown when the pandemic is expected to peak in April or May.
The AFLW will continue this weekend, but the final two weeks of the home-and-away season has been cut and finals will begin immediately.
“We know at any time a player may test positive and halt our journey temporarily,” McLachlan said.
We know we are building resilience measures in our clubs and our squads so that over the next couple of weeks we are better prepared to deal with the positive test of one or multiple players.
“We start tomorrow night, confident after discussions with the chief medical officer that our players are well placed to bear the proportionate risk of playing a contact sport.
“We feel confident in our club and industry protocols, which we continue to refine based on the best advice available.”
Already AFL players have come in for criticism about the move to push ahead, particularly given the AFL Players Association’s push to play a full season with no pay cuts.
The league says it will consult at all times with government and medical officials to balance the wellbeing of players with the financial health of the game.
“Our industry is unified in making a decision to start. The reality is this season will not look like any other,” McLachlan said.