What will the AFL competition look like on the otherside of the Covid-19 pandemic

GWS Giants AFL players Tim Taranto and Harry Himmelberg train in isolation at their home in Sydney on April 14. AFL players across the country are now training in isolation under strict policies in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
GWS Giants AFL players Tim Taranto and Harry Himmelberg train in isolation at their home in Sydney on April 14. AFL players across the country are now training in isolation under strict policies in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

About the only certainty as the world grapples with the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic is that things are going to look pretty different even after it's all over.

The toll on human life is already shocking. The damage done to economies across the globe profound. They are tolls so substantial than even when the dangers to health have receded, the impacts will continue to be felt for years, perhaps even decades. A less gloomy outlook perhaps, though, is that in some respects the aftermath may give us all an opportunity to reassess our priorities.

There's no doubt imposed quarantine in this country has seen people rediscover simpler pleasures and more traditional ways of life, even down to things like just spending more time with immediate family.

Are there potential ramifications for professional sport as a result? It's worth thinking about. The AFL is dealing with some very pressing issues right now, like without games and therefore revenue streams, how it ensures clubs and indeed the entire AFL competition can continue. And with time continuing to tick away, how does it manage to run and complete any sort of 2020 season?

But difficult as it is to look beyond those sizeable questions, there's also one about how the game and competition may look when things return to at least some degree of normality. And with it, the potential for the same sorts of ideological jousts to be conducted when it comes to the AFL as are being played out between health experts warning against any relaxation of isolation measures, and economists complaining about overreactions and urging for their repeal.

As this non-season continues, shots of that type are already being fired, most of them to date by football media types without necessarily even a philosophical investment in any argument, but a more opportunistic need to create "talking points".

Thus the scuttlebutt about this team or that potentially on the chopping block, or being forced to merge or relocate. This despite the AFL's public insistence that we went into the crisis with an 18-club competition and will emerge out the other end with the same number, in the same shape.

At a more immediate level, we've already seen shorter quarters and the cap on interchange rotations reduced for the hurriedly-organised playing of round one matches a few weeks ago (though somehow it already seems a lot longer).

Even they were changes which, had they been introduced in normal circumstances, would at the very least have provoked fierce debate. Against the backdrop of a season we weren't even sure would commence until the evening before it did, though, they were ushered in with a minimum of pushback.

That will make it a lot easier for the AFL to push for their retention on a permanent basis if and when things do go back to whatever "normal" will now look like.

Perhaps that might even happen without too much angst. Certainly, the shorter games in round one didn't feel dramatically abbreviated, though the rationale for doing so would be harder to justify in a normal schedule, not one in which clubs were faced with the prospect of playing several games in quick succession.

The other major alteration, the paring back of a 23-round season to just 17, is obviously more problematic, given the implied reduction in broadcasting revenue given fewer games. Unless, of course, the AFL decided to extend the finals series with the introduction of "wildcard" pre-finals playoffs, a concept which has clearly had some fans at administrative level for a while, anyway.

As for the thorny old issue of a night grand final, any premiership play-off this year in these extraordinary circumstances, let alone one which theoretically could be played in December before no spectators, would by its very nature be first and foremost a TV event.

What better excuse would the league have to "trial" a night grand final, and then use the inevitable bumper ratings to make the shift permanent? The use of quotes around trial, incidentally, is because surely no one believes that once we do have a night grand final, that won't remain the case.

There's so many potential changes the AFL could introduce in the current environment with far more ease than it would otherwise. But you'd hope when there is at least a little more time for reflection, it will carefully consider the ramifications.

Because while its own circumstances have changed, so will have those of the football public. We already know many fans are finding difficult the burden of continued club membership in their own changed economic situation.

We should consider the possibility that their priorities when it comes to sport and entertainment may have shifted also, that there are more meaningful and perhaps cheaper ways of spending their down time.

And that if the season continues to be played out in empty stadiums when it does resume, what now appears strange and pretty deflating may become the norm enough to make those ardent fans who have previously made the effort to go to games each week decide it's just as good watching from the comfort of the lounge room.

I don't doubt there will be a real thirst for AFL football whenever we do get underway again. But perhaps even the biggest fanatics of the game might have a different perspective on exactly where it sits in life's pecking order of priorities.

They may not be quite so forgiving of a sport which suddenly feels like it has been bent out of recognition. And in these dark days, you can still bet that whatever happens in the interim, the game upon resumption will still need them every bit as much as they need a good dose of the game.

This story Gearing up for the challenges of change first appeared on The Canberra Times.