What if they played a sporting event and no one came?
The nation’s elite sports tried that for a while and it didn’t work out particularly well.
In the early weeks of sport’s coronavirus-hit twilight zone, what officials discovered was that big-money games not only need the buzz of crowds to survive financially but also to provide a sense that something was at stake.
What the fans got in early rounds was a peek behind the hype curtain, and it wasn’t impressive – most of our heroes looked and sounded just like the park footballers they once were.
The technologists were soon employed to boost NRL and AFL games by bringing the absent fans back into the game and, despite some sidelines moaning, the results have been impressive.
Still, not so impressive that Sydney’s opportunistic offer on Monday to provide crowds and financial security to sporting bodies in exchange for some of Melbourne’s biggest events was not rejected out of hand.
Clearly venues able to provide a safe environment, no matter where they are located, is sport’s new home-ground advantage.
With officials now relying on television revenue to keep competitions afloat and provide entertainment to fans in lockdown, the immediate focus is not where events will be held, but the quality of what’s being served up.
It has often not been pretty, with players adapting to new tactics and many not being at peak form having missed many group training sessions.
In the AFL, Exhibit-A would be Sunday’s frustrating slog at the Gabba between Sydney and Richmond – a game that even the winning coach Damien Hardwick described as “horrendous”.
Low scoring has become a staple of this season’s shortened matches, but the defensive nature of the wet-weather game and the inability of both teams to score made for a dire spectacle.
“It was hard to watch. It was hard to play,” Hardwick told reporters after the match.
“It was just incredibly frustrating … We had 50-odd inside 50s for four or five goals, which is farcical in nature, really. Horrible game of football.”
His comments reignited a debate that has been simmering in the social media background all season – is the AFL harming its brand by playing in these COVID-straitened times?
Although most commentators agree the game must go on, calls for changes to improve the product are gathering pace, with the size of the interchange bench again the focus.
Rotations were capped at 90 per side in 2016 and kept for this year despite the objections of many coaches.
But on Monday, former rule committee member and long-time proponent of two on the bench Kevin Bartlett reopened the debate on Twitter.
Bartlett and others who think fatigued players are the answer to freeing up the game from the defensive machinations of win-at-all-cost coaches should perhaps cast an eye to the NRL.
In rugby league’s peak competition, the ‘six again’ rule initially reinvigorated matches this season, only to cause unforeseen issues and week-by-week rule tweaks.
By deeming the referee should restart the tackle count instead of awarding a penalty for an offence in the ruck, the NRL became a more free-flowing affair – until all those running tries got somewhat boring.
With the demise of some long-standing defensive tactics, the class gap between teams has been exposed.
The result has been a significant increase in blowout games, something no television-based sport can sustain in the long term.
What’s clear from the first two months of the restarted AFL and NRL seasons is that the concessions to player welfare being made in the post-COVID era make this a year like no other.
Veteran commentator Tim Lane believes the nature of competitions have clearly been changed by the coronavirus rules, but maintains for every poor AFL match there has been a game that has provided quality entertainment.
“If anything, I’m warming to it a bit as it goes along,” Lane told The New Daily.
“It has been quite unpredictable. And while there have been some terrible games, there have been some pretty good ones.
There have been a lot of close finishes which I think is being facilitated to some extent by the shortened games … and the fact that the scoring is commensurately lower.
“It has been keeping teams within touch, so there haven’t been too many games that a team is so far behind that it would give up the ghost.
“This will be remembered as a year that is very different. But ultimately when someone raised the cup, I guess it gets recorded as the premier team for 2020 … they will have overcome the challenge.”
Lane also thinks it’s important that sport and its participants remain clear in the examples that they set in tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
“Footy is seen as something that provides a bit of joy so it is important and good for people – and I think it is having that effect … yet if people are becoming a little more cavalier in the (coronavirus) disciplines … the restart of sport and the popular football cards might well contribute to that,” he said.
“It does give us a feel that our freedoms are restored.”
For sporting officials tweaking their attack versus defence rules, or even a tired community fighting an unseen virus, it seems at least one thing is clear – too much freedom can make a mess of things.