Australia’s sporting codes may face scheduling headache following coronavirus shutdown

Had you suggested a month ago that there could be too much live sport this year, it would have been assumed your COVID-19 swab had penetrated the naval cavity and become lodged in your cerebral cortex.

That was back when the forecasts of any sport being played before Christmas seemed bleak and some of us ridiculed Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys for his preposterous insistence his competition would start on May 28.

Now, in just nine days, elated fans will howl at their televisions that “one ref is still one too many!” as Pugnacious Pete’s NRL leads sport back onto the field — that is, if you don’t count horse racing as a sport, which many don’t until the spring or autumn carnivals when, suddenly, they do.

Two weeks later, the AFL will return when most anticipate Victorian giants Richmond and Collingwood will be given the honour of playing the first match, something that would no doubt thrill already disgruntled fans from Western Australia and South Australia, whose teams will be hunkered down in Queensland hubs.

Then the (not so) Super Rugby could be back in early July, the A-League season completed by August (and presumably started again in October), Super Netball might be rebooted and various international events, including the golf and tennis majors (except the Open Championship and Wimbledon), could have confirmed their current tentative bookings.

Most likely, there will be no crowds. But by August we will be as accustomed to watching matches played in eerily empty stadiums as we have become to having them drowned out by hysterical commentators.

Which leads to the very welcome but unforeseen problem created by the requisite scheduling adjustments, a period that would challenge Roy Slaven and HG Nelson’s oft-repeated rule of thumb: too much sport is barely enough.

By extending the NRL and AFL seasons, we have notionally created an Octoberfest of sport where the footy finals will collide with the spring racing carnival and potentially the men’s ICC T20 World Cup, as well as several other global events.

Richmond Tigers players lift the premiership trophy and point forward

Richmond Tigers players lift the premiership trophy and point forward

This year’s AFL grand final may clash with the Cox Plate in Melbourne.(AAP: Michael Dodge)

The AFL grand final may share October 24 with the 100th running of the Cox Plate, while on November 11 the Nine Network is scheduled to broadcast rugby league’s second State of Origin encounter and a T20 World Cup semi-final, potentially featuring Australia.

The second clash of events appears the least likely, given the increasing murmurs the T20 World Cup will be postponed until February or — given there is another T20 World Cup in India late next year — abandoned, especially with the Indian Premier League’s operators eyeing the October/November period covetously.

The AFL won’t be seen to publicly death-ride the big cricket circus, given it needs to negotiate with Cricket Australia over ground access for state and community cricket.

But, privately, AFL officials are hoping the T20 World Cup is at least shifted because of the potential clashes over ground availability, most obviously the MCG on grand final day.

Although, assuming crowds are still not permitted in late October, the AFL’s showpiece might be better accommodated as a purely TV product at the Docklands stadium or even — shock, horror! — a non-Victorian ground, given the cavernous MCG was the least atmospheric venue during the crowd-less opening round.

Racing among scheduling logjam

Horse racing has notionally been the one remaining attraction for sports fans in lockdown. Even if, for some of us, watching Michael Jordan reminisce about great games and even greater grudges has been a more entertaining distraction than a midweek maiden from Hawkesbury.

But having been the only show in town during what is normally its downtime, horse racing will have the NRL and AFL for company during its spring carnival unless it adopts the most imaginative course and avoids the clash by moving to November.

The Melbourne Cup winner is on the fence, as two horses outside it bump each other near the finish.

The Melbourne Cup winner is on the fence, as two horses outside it bump each other near the finish.

There are no plans to move the Melbourne Cup away from the first Tuesday in November.(AAP: Michael Dodge)

The suggestion the Melbourne Cup could be run on anything other than the first Tuesday in November was immediately shot down by Victoria Racing Club chief executive Neil Wilson.

“Cup week is Cup week,” said Wilson, adopting the kind of literalist approach to scheduling that seems to assume COVID-19 has hitherto undiagnosed respect for racing tradition.

Meanwhile, the Melbourne Racing Club and Moonee Valley Racing Club are at least considering the idea of shifting the Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate respectively to November to avoid Saturday clashes with football finals.

This could raise the novel problem for punters of lining up how Melbourne Cup form translates to the Caulfield Cup and the Cox Plate rather than the other way around, albeit without the annual mystery of rating international horses with exotic form over seemingly random distances.

This also raises the question of why three separate clubs are required to run Melbourne racing, although it would take more than a global pandemic to modernise Australian racing’s arcane governance model.

At the local level, the idea of any sport being contested remains problematic, with some confusion about the application of the Australian Institute of Sport’s three-staged Framework for Rebooting Sport.

As the weeks tick by, various local football codes continue to weigh up the cost-effectiveness of returning to the park, while coaches of junior teams are increasingly eager to get kids kicking a ball.

But while we are waiting to play sport, the scheduling jam confronting various administrations could create a wonderfully unexpected problem for viewers.

A period starting in usually barren October when, as Roy and HG might say: too much sport will be bloody great!