A grand final crowd away from MCG may be better than none

Photo: Ankit M/Shutterstock.com
Photo: Ankit M/Shutterstock.com

For obvious reasons, time for many people has seemed to slow down during the COVID-19 crisis and the accompanying social restrictions which have ensued.

The options are fewer, particularly when it comes to entertainment. That said, while you may not be able to go out to the cinema, theatre or a restaurant, there's plenty to watch at home these days beyond traditional television - ditto on the quality food front.

And perhaps it's a lifestyle trend, albeit forced upon us, which might come in as handy preparation for an AFL season looking increasingly likely to resume sometime in late June.

Because then, and even probably by the conclusion, season 2020 will remain for nearly all of us a home-based experience.

The news on the resumption at least is encouraging.

Certainly for those of us for whom the prospect of grand finals potentially played in December, and the much-discussed but now less-likely prospect of three lots of team hubs cooped up in isolation, felt uncomfortably close to an episode of Big Brother meets Love Island and a lot less like a real football competition.

In fact, the closer we get to next week's anticipated announcement on how the season will look, the more it appears the amount of change may be several levels below the many worst-case scenarios which have been pondered.

If Friday's national cabinet discussion is favourable and Victorian Premier Dan Andrews gives the thumbs up next Monday, players could be back at their clubs by the end of this month.

The decent possibility of "fly in, fly out" interstate travel for teams would render hubs unnecessary.

And a June resumption would allow the AFL to persist with a fairly typical schedule, games running from Thursdays to Sundays.

That in turn, should make extending interchange benches from four to six also unnecessary.

The AFL - which originally said it planned to keep rounds two to four of this season as they'd been scheduled - now looks likely to redo the fixture for those rounds as well as the rest, which given the sorts of compromises being mooted doesn't matter a great deal.

And if that's what the resumed 2020 season looks like, even crusty old traditionalists like me wouldn't have all that much to grumble about on integrity issues.

An issue remaining - and it's arguably also about the integrity of the competition and certainly the aesthetic - concerns crowds, and the very strong possibility that the entire 2020 AFL season will be played out in closed stadiums.

Few people would argue that in the one completed round of this season we have seen, there was a flatness about even the three games decided by a goal or less.

To have tight games won in the last moments to the backdrop of only players' yells and whistles was a bizarre experience to say the least.

The intensity of those games? Well, it was round one, but none I watched seemed to have a typical air of desperation about them.

Enough players have subsequently conceded they found it difficult to rev themselves up to the usual levels without a fan base to perform before.

Of course players are professionals.

Of course they're playing for careers and at least with the knowledge that millions are still watching them on TV.

Perhaps that difference in intensity was only marginal.

But would that make a significant difference come grand final day? Absolutely.

And the aesthetic? Well, it's difficult to actually get your head around what playing not just a regular season but a grand final in front of no people would feel like.

Huge deeds which decide premierships in front of huge crowds are as inextricably linked as a heartbeat and life.

The alternative seems incomprehensible.

It's why some radical alternatives are being considered.

Like an AFL grand final in the Northern Territory, which with fewer than 30 confirmed coronavirus cases is planning to restart competitive sport in front of live crowds from early next month.

Any grand final held away from the MCG is obviously a huge step.

But if the actual playing arena is the only thing which matters without a six-figure turnout sitting in the stands, would not any sort of crowd be preferable, regardless of the location?

Would that make the game feel more like a "real" grand final because of the presence of at least some spectators, or less so because of where it was being held?

It's the type of question which will likely prove impossible to answer until it happens and all of us, players and fans alike, have been through the experience.

I certainly have no idea how I'd react until I'd witnessed it.

A media colleague of mine is one of the most diehard St Kilda fans I have known, who has suffered through the last 50-odd years of the Saints' failure to win a second premiership and their near-misses along the way.

As desperate as he is to see them end the drought, he insists he'd rather they didn't create that slice of history in front of an empty stadium.

I believe him, too. But if and when St Kilda was part of a crowdless grand final, holding a narrow lead with a few minutes to play, would he really still not want the Saints to finish the job?

This man holds strong convictions, but I defy even him to answer that definitively.

Which pretty much sums up why even the most comprehensively-researched contingency plans about this AFL season can't be a lot more than guesswork.

We really are in uncharted territory here.

And how well it is negotiated simply won't be known until we complete the journey.

This story An AFL grand final crowd away from MCG may be better than none first appeared on The Canberra Times.