There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has put businesses of all shapes and sizes under unprecedented pressure. Over the past 20-months we have talked at length about how businesses have weathered the pandemic storm by pivoting, finding new paths, and changing course at speed.
Arguably, there has been no business able to pivot and change quite like the AFL through the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
While football in Australian has been around since the 1800’s, it has been in the last 30 years that Australian Football’s professional boom has forged its way forward, with relatively little standing in its way.
For many of us, the AFL is part of our cultural identity, something so much bigger than a pastime or a hobby. It’s almost like a religion to some, deeply engrained in the Australian way of life.
Since becoming a professional sporting code, the AFL as a business, has never taken a significant financial backwards step, at least not until COVID-19 struck, when on 22 March 2020, the AFL season was suspended at the conclusion of round 1.
It was from this date that everything changed.
Immediately the well-oiled machine that is the AFL Operations Team went into overdrive. Matches were scheduled, then suspended, then rescheduled. Then played mid-week in front of empty stadiums.
Contingency plans upon contingency plans were created. ‘Player bubbles’ came into being. Entire teams were forced into isolation at times. Fans went to enter grounds only to be turned away at the last minute. COVID-19 breaches occurred and the League came down hard, providing the optics that they were not above government direction and the law.
All this time the AFL continued to work tirelessly to keep clubs, players, sponsors and most importantly, supporters engaged. While it wasn’t easy and not everything was always handled well, you have to give it to them, they did it and finally after 6 months of navigating themselves down windy, dark paths, the 2020 Grand Final was played outside Victoria for the first time in AFL history.
The MCG sat alone, silent, longing for crowds with their cheers to return, and return they did for season 2021, albeit for a brief moment. It was not long before they were, like all of us, again thrust into COVID chaos all over again.
For a second year in a row, the AFL had it all thrown at them again, only this time they were prepared. They’d become agile and flexible. Organisers, clubs, players, and their families all knew what to expect this time. It was frustrating, it was hard, it was clunky, but they made it happen, again.
This year the AFL Finals series was again extended all around Australia with Tasmanian fans able to experience the adrenaline rush of an AFL final for the first time ever.
Perth then won the right to host the Big Dance and with no COVID restrictions, this Saturday’s twilight Grand Final will be played in front of a capacity crowd of close to 60,000 people.
While the majority of supporters of the two Victorian-based teams playing on Saturday will have to watch from their lounge rooms, they can at least be content that their team has made it. For Melbourne fans it might just be their first chance to see their team win a flag since 1964.
Even if you do not follow football, you can’t help but be impressed by what the AFL has been able to achieve simply be being open to change, being resilient and moving at speed. Their never say die attitude, even in the face of criticism, is to be admired.
At a time when Victorians had little else to entertain them during lengthy lockdowns, the AFL continued on. Yes, the AFL is a business that was trying to find a way to keep operating and making money during unprecedented times, but to many of us, it meant a lot. It was an outlet during challenging times, something to look forward to, and something to talk about other than daily COVID infection numbers and vaccination rates.
While my team, the Saints, didn’t get close this year, I do want to give credit to the AFL. You did something more than just keep a business afloat at a time when this town really needed it.
Good luck to the Dees and the Doggies this Saturday, and congratulations to CEO Gillon McLachlan and the team behind the AFL, you are the real winners this weekend.