The AFL and NRL have triumphantly returned, but other sports may struggle in their shadow

As restrictions are lifted, we are finding it is not the fears and apprehensions experienced during shutdown that will inform our futures, but the real changes that become apparent as we emerge from our COVID-19 cocoons.

At the height of the Great Toilet Paper Wars, it was predicted the AFL and NRL would be so greatly diminished by financial deprivation they would struggle to fund five-a-side games in local parks.

Collingwood’s ubiquitous president, Eddie McGuire, said the AFL “will never be the same again” and Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Pugnacious Pete V’landys rushed to extinguish a raging dumpster fire.

We should not underestimate the plight of those who have lost their jobs or been stood down as both leagues adjusted to reduced revenue, while oddities such as empty stadiums and the postponement of the Bulldogs-Roosters NRL match due to a COVID-19 scare are enduring reminders of changed times.

Yet for all the doomsaying and some on-field tweaking, Australia’s predominant football leagues looked remarkably like their old selves at the weekend in both the way they were played and — just as significantly — the enormous TV audiences they attracted.

An estimated 1,617,000 watched the Collingwood-Richmond match last Thursday night (at the same time more than 600,000 were viewing an NRL fixture), while 1,353,000 witnessed the return of the NRL two weeks earlier.

There is some squabbling about which code sacrificed more while renegotiating and extending media rights deals to fortify their immediate futures.

But as Pugnacious Pete talked about purchasing a private jet for his supposedly cash-strapped competition, it seemed apparent the heightened level of concern for the AFL and NRL had not been due to any real fear they could go under, but because they had more to lose than other sports.

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Devon Smith bump fists in celebration

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Devon Smith bump fists in celebration

The return of the AFL was met by bumper TV viewing figures.(AAP: Mark Evans)

The real fear for the ecumenical Australian sports fan is that the continued prosperity of the AFL and NRL will come at the expense of others — or, more accurately, will come at the even greater expense of others.

The domestic footy giants have been the beneficiaries of a long-term trend whereby their mainstream media coverage has become exhaustive — and in some cases exhausting — as other sports struggled for the little space left on news sites or the airwaves because of dwindling advertising revenue.

The growth of AFL and NRL coverage has been a chicken and egg dilemma: Did TV networks and major news sites pump up coverage of the most popular codes to cater for reader/viewer demand? Or did this increased exposure exaggerate their popularity?

Either way, the COVID-19 shutdown has accelerated the trend. With advertising down and newsrooms shredded, staff covering sports considered less commercially viable have been the first to go.

Football may fight for coverage

During an era when we were supposed to have been enjoying the benefits of the past heroics of the Socceroos and the enormous feats of the Matildas, the mainstream media coverage of Australian football is suddenly endangered.

On Monday, Nine reported a conspiracy theory that has buzzed around sports media circles in recent weeks — that News Corp was culling football reporters in preparation for a not particularly amicable divorce from the A-League.

Fox Sports has already shed a large number of football production staff. This development, according to some insiders, was a sign the pay-per-view provider was preparing to abandon the final three years of its A-League contract.

The broadcaster’s recent deal with Rugby Australia was seen as another dark portent for football, with some insiders claiming rugby union had been chosen ahead of — and possibly instead of — the round ball game.

That the A-League’s return-to-play announcement came without a renegotiated deal with Fox Sports will raise concerns further, although the AFL and NRL did not announce their new contracts until the day of their resumptions.

Regardless of how the A-League/Fox Sports deadlock plays out, football has become just the latest victim of the rapidly dwindling mainstream coverage of sports other than the all-conquering AFL and NRL.

This inevitably accentuates the already vast commercial advantage enjoyed by the biggest codes rather than providing even the pretence of a merits-based appreciation of the achievements of Australian athletes in a still incredible broad spectrum of sports.

A Western Sydney Wanderers W-League player dribbles the ball next to a Melbourne City opponent.

A Western Sydney Wanderers W-League player dribbles the ball next to a Melbourne City opponent.

Football in Australia may face diminished media coverage in the immediate future.(AAP: Rob Prezioso)

The obvious problem for once prominent and so-called “minor sports” is that attempts to run events and gain sponsors are increasingly difficult, even futile without decent media coverage.

In turn, revenue for grassroots programs dwindles, leaving only the good grace of volunteers and government grants to fund the production of their next wave of participants.

That is unless, like tennis, you have the one-off benefit of the Australian Open, which has been largely subsidised by the Victorian Government desperate to fill hotels and restaurants with another “major event”.

Cricket occupies a different ecosystem than most other Australian sports with its dependence on international tours.

In that regard, Cricket Australia’s pessimistic financial forecasts will rise and fall on the intent of the Indian tourists and broadcasters rather than the column inches devoted to games in local papers.

For fans of sport other than AFL and NRL, there are excellent and in some cases superior alternatives to the coverage of sport in mainstream media on specialist websites and podcasts, while a benefit of lockdown is that we technologically-challenged types have discovered streaming services are not that hard to access after all.

But while we entered shutdown wondering if the AFL and NRL would be diminished, inevitably it seems sports that once enjoyed at least reasonable prominence will have an even greater struggle to emerge from their vast shadows.