How football cracked the COVID crowd code to survive another year

The AFL was moved to Perth from its normal home at the MCG, allowing more than 60,000 fans from WA to attend.

By Dr Abdel K Halabi

The last two weekends have seen the AFL and the NRL complete memorable grand finals. In the AFL, Melbourne broke a 57-year drought to win the premiership, while Penrith won a pulsating and close finale, avenging their loss in 2020.

For the AFL, it was only the second time a grand final had been played outside Victoria and the first for Perth. For the NRL, it was the first grand final played outside Sydney. This is the second year the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all sport in Australia, and credit must be given to both the AFL and NRL who were able to finish their season and play their biggest football events at their normal time.

Moving the grand finals to states with few or no COVID cases provided the opportunity for more spectators to see the games than would have been possible in their traditional homes of Melbourne or Sydney. The increased attendances will also provide a very welcome boost to the finances of both the AFL and NRL.

Last year the AFL spent more than $60 million when it relocated Melbourne teams to Queensland to get the season completed. The 2020 AFL season proceeded with fewer scheduled games, and the loss of revenue from broadcasting, together with the costly relocation of teams, meant the AFL recorded an operating loss of $22.8 million.

Commercial operations, which included receipts from the finals, had the largest fall of all revenue of 33 per cent. The 2020 AFL finals attendances were 63 per cent below the previous year, even though the grand final audience was 30 per cent up on 2019.

This year the finances of the AFL are looking much better. While the AFL had to relocate some games interstate, they avoided the long-term hub – although the Sydney teams did spend a considerable amount of time in Melbourne – and completed all 23 rounds.

Attendances at games were up significantly during the home-and-away season, and with a sell-out crowd of 61,118 for the Perth grand final, the finals attendances were 32 per cent greater than last year. The grand final attracted a national average audience of 4.11 million, making it the highest watched television program in Australia to date this year. Tickets for the general public sold out in under 10 minutes, and the Ticketmaster queue was five times longer than the one for the 2020 grand final.  While revenues will improve this year, one item the AFL will not receive will be the $33 million from JobKeeper.

The finances of the NRL after the 2020 season saw a deficit made of $24 million on vastly reduced attendances at matches and finals. In total, the revenue reduced by $136m (25 per cent) on the previous year. Like the AFL, the NRL season was shortened, and increased expenditure was incurred in having the New Zealand Warriors and Melbourne Storm play most of their matches away from home.  It was reported that to keep both teams in the league cost the NRL $4 million for the Storm and $5 million for the Warriors.  In 2020, the NRL received $11.7 million from JobKeeper.

This year the NRL successfully played all 25 rounds, but the pandemic in Sydney meant that, like the AFL last year, a hub was used in Queensland. The relocation of the NRL teams to Queensland was estimated to cost the NRL around $15 million a week – an expenditure that will significantly impact their bottom line.

Like the AFL, attendances at NRL games were, however, significantly higher in 2021. In relation to the grand final, originally, the NRL had sold 52,500 tickets, and even with a COVID-reduced crowd of 39,322 at the Brisbane Suncorp Stadium last Sunday, the total attendance was up five per cent on 2020.  Moving the AFL and NRL grand finals, therefore, will lead to a much-needed financial bonus for both leagues.

The interstate grand finals created great interest for the host cities. The AFL grand final in Perth was described as a sporting windfall to rival Fremantle’s hosting of the America’s Cup.  Similarly, the NRL grand final in Brisbane has Queensland demanding more NRL finals after its ‘stunning success’.

The economic impact of these grand finals was somewhat limited, particularly with interstate tourists being prohibited from entering Western Australia and Queensland.  However, the cities of Perth and Brisbane have provided ongoing legacies – particularly for their winning team supporters.  For the Demons, Perth will forever be the venue where the ‘Norm Smith curse’ was broken, and for Brisbane, it will be the city where the Panthers won the only interstate grand final.

Dr Abdel K Halabi is an Associate Professor in Accounting at the Federation Business School. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand (CAANZ) and a Certified Practising Accountant with CPA Australia.  He is co-editor of Sporting Traditions the journal of the Australian Society for Sports History.

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