While the days of packed stadiums seem like a distant memory, the effects of the global pandemic have not only lingered, but remained strongly. This has meant a major interruption to sport everywhere, including Australia – who has done extremely well comparatively when you consider the devastation that has swept across the other continents.
Back when COVID-19 was first declared as a global pandemic in 2020, the Australian Summer of tennis was already done and dusted, so naturally most other sports, like AFL and NRL, were at the forefront of our minds when we thought about the impact of the pandemic on our athletes. Now that tennis season has rolled back around while other sports are in their offseason, only now are we seeing the true effect of the pandemic on tennis in Australia. Plus, if you consider the main Aussie sports in terms of the same metrics of interruption, it’s interesting to see how they all weigh up.
The recent debacle surrounding the logistics of the Australian Open and measures that the AO and the Victorian Government are taking to get the tournament to happen has shone a light on tennis players from around the globe, but how has the sport itself been affected here?
One of the main points of difference between tennis and other sports is that tennis players don’t have a set salary from playing alone. That is, their pay depends on whether they win or not, unlike an AFL player who gets the same amount no matter the result. Sure, they can still rely on sponsorship and endorsements, which can earn the player more than their prize money anyway. But this isn’t a luxury that lower ranked players have – rather, they often have limited (if any) federation or sponsorship support. It’s a bad time to be starting out as a tennis player, or to be only just hitting your straps.
Speaking of money, we know that crowds are obviously a big factor in the revenue that sporting events can make. When it comes to less crowds, there have been no exceptions – and tennis will see limited fans walking through the gates according to current plans. The Australian Open will work with a zone system this year, meaning spectators are limited to certain areas within the tournament. It also means that the fan favourite ground pass will be a distant memory. Similarly, current Aussie tournaments are under massive capacity drops and limited ticketing, which will be the same for competitions following the Grand Slam. If you’re a tennis player right now, you will be about to fare a lot better than other athletes in terms of crowd support, simply because tennis wasn’t around in Australia when the strictest Coronavirus measures were in place (at this point It seems fitting to note that Ash Barty was happily enjoying a beer at the footy while the French Open went on without her).
Sponsorships, broadcasting and finances
Generally speaking, tennis is more reliant on sponsorships, rather than media. This means that the sport is more effected by depleted sponsorships compared to other sports.
- The Australian Open’s sponsorship with Kia was at one point Australia’s most lucrative sponsorship deal. They’ve now moved to TMGM, scaling back their deal with Kia
- Profits in the first half of the year dropped to half of the previous year’s, from $10.7 million to $5.4 million
- The delay of the Australian Open caused a breach of the existing contract with broadcast partner Nine, meaning Tennis Australia had to negotiate a new reduced deal, costing them over $6 million alone.
When it comes to employment, it’s hard to sum up the widespread impact that Covid-19 had on all sports. One of the by-products of the pandemic worldwide in tennis was the replacement of line-judges by hawkeye technology. This is set to continue into the Australian season, and likely further, meaning the jobs of line-judges all over the world will now be shattered. Add to that the coaches during the season, umpires and officials, medical teams and venue staff, in addition to staff in governing bodies. In the last financial year, Tennis Australia received $4.5 million in Job Keeper payments – and are footing the bill for the hotel quarantine required for the Australian Open which won’t help with the numbers.
Cancellations and changes
It’s clear that the global tennis season in general suffered a lot last year, with Grand Slams being cancelled or postponed as well as countless other tournaments, with ones that did go ahead usually running at a loss. Fast forward to now, and the whole Summer of tennis in 2021 looks totally different to what it usually does in Australia. Not only has the Australian Open been postponed, but most of the competitive Aussie season has been moved to Victoria. This is off the back of the Brisbane International and Hobart International both being cancelled, with the ATP Cup being moved to Melbourne. Tennis Australia has acted to revamp the Aussie Summer of tennis though, by jamming in a handful of WTA 500 and ATP 250 events before the Australian Open (which have already started), as well as a couple afterwards. This means that overall, the season will finish in Adelaide rather than on Rod Laver arena, and will be unlike any other Australian tennis season we’ve ever seen.
One of the beauties of the competitive tennis landscape is that it is possible to inject new competitions and alter others, unlike other sports in Australia that obviously revolve around singular seasons. This means that overall, tennis has had to be more flexible to keep things up and running.
Impact on lower levels
Tennis was no outlier when it came to being crushed at lower levels. From high profile junior events to community tournaments and league seasons, pretty much everything came to a halt when the true extent of Coronavirus in Australia was realised. This left community clubs with financial issues, left coaches high and dry, and also left teams hanging who were up to the finals in their competitions.
Training in pretty much every sport was a fatality in Australia while the pandemic was at its peak. When it came to Rugby and AFL, training was still permitted in small groups when they were in hotel isolation, however training is prohibited for tennis players who were confined to hotels in the lead up to the Australian Open, especially off the back of two charter flights carrying players to Melbourne with positive cases, forcing 47 players into hard lockdown. This is a huge disadvantage, especially in the lead up to a Grand Slam, not to mention the disruption to the usual lead up tournaments that players could usually play in preparation.
We haven’t seen normal crowd sizes at any high-level sports since 2019. As we know, the timing of the pandemic meant that the season had to be commenced behind closed doors, and while that did ease after a few months across different states, it never returned to full capacity in 2020. In fact, the NRL estimated that they lost around $5 million per round alone due to not having any crowds. Now that we’re kicking off the AFLW, NBL and A-League seasons and wrapping up the BBL, we can see that crowd restrictions have gone nowhere, in fact – they’re here to stay for the time being. Overall, sports that managed to pull off complete season in 2020 would have fared worse in comparison to tennis, which probably won’t see matches behind closed doors in Australia if Covid-19 remains at bay.
Sponsorships, broadcasting and finances
The pandemic has caused a lot of fatalities where sponsorships and broadcasting deals are concerned.
- Foxtel dropped its $57 million per year deal with the A-League
- AFL reduced their deals with Channel Seven and Foxtel
- Overall, the AFL expected that their revenue fell $400 million in 2020
- NRL was forced to cut a new deal with Fox Sports and Nine
- Seven West Media asserted Cricket Australia were incompetent and sought to slash or cut completely their current contract, which is worth $450 million, and had to renegotiate with Foxtel.
Salary cuts became a common phrase when the real predicament of the virus came to a head around the time that the AFL and NRL season openers were approaching. The reality of the situation was that pretty much all sports where players were on set salaries were affected in different ways. Overall, AFL players had their salaries reduced by around 29% (some up to 50%), with individual clubs being tasked with managing salaries in 2021. This means that players will be looking at another percentage pay drop, as well as the potential for contract tweaks including back-ending and the loss of B&F bonuses.
- NRL has informed players union they believe COVID-19 will cost them at least $400 million over the next two seasons, prompting head office to take cost cutting measures including a significant reduction in the salary cap.
- A-league players were also in the same boat, taking an average pay slash of 50% across the last 3 months of the season. Some players were earning only 17% of the figure on their contract, and had to resort to Job Keeper payments as well
- Cricket Australia proposed a percentage based model to replace set salaries, causing disputes within the playing group.
Jobs were lost left, right and centre as the pandemic hit the industry last year.
- In the AFL, initially 80% of staff were stood in March when the pandemic first hit. Even those in high places weren’t safe from eventual job cuts, with roughly 20% of roles across the league evaporating in an attempt to stem the financial bleeding, including top executives.
- Assistant coaches were also shown the door
- Similarly, the FFA stood down 70% of staff following the initial postponing of the league in April
- Perth Glory, Central Coast Mariners, Western Sydney Wanderers, Newcastle Jets, Adelaide United, Brisbane Roar stood down both players and staff
- In September last year, the NRL announced that they would be making 25% of staff redundant to save $50 million a year, also including top executive roles (like the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer)
- Cricket Australia stood down around 80% of their staff, and cut state funding which led to a further loss of jobs – again, some executive staff members lost their jobs
- As a whole, venue hospitality and management staff joined the long list of people whose jobs were shut down across all codes.
Cancellations and changes
The timing of the pandemic threw a spanner in the works of every competitive sport, with fixtures and events cancelled and postponed all over the country. From the cancellation of the remaining AFLW finals to the postponing of round 1 of the AFL, footy fixtures danced between curveballs to settle on a footy frenzy, that saw match scheduling condensed into short time frames with teams operating out of interstate hubs, with the NRL operating in similar fashion. Speaking of hubs, these were an unprecedented but necessary element of sporting seasons that enabled the year to go ahead, and proved extremely tough for some players, who had to spend months away from home with strict measures in place. It was also tough for the AFL, who spent $60 million relocating and providing accommodation for teams and their families, plus coaches and staff to Queensland for example.
Other examples of key changes included:
- NRL season being suspended after round two
- The Warriors and Melbourne Storm being forced to relocate to NSW’s Central Coast and Queensland’s Sunshine Coast
- Two-week isolation periods across codes
- Change of venues for games
- Four-month disruption to A-league
- Rugby State of Origin postponed
- Length of the regular NFL season was adjusted to 20 games
- Length of regular AFL season adjusted to 17 games
- The AFL Grand Final being moved from its usual imposing fortress of the MCG
- Socceroos world cup qualifiers postponed
- Australia’s participation in Copa America postponed
- Matildas’ friendlies against US and Canada both cancelled
- Test cricket match against Afghanistan postponed, as well as series of ODIs against New Zealand.
In game changes
From shorter quarters to forbidden handshakes and awkward socially distant post-win circles, some aspects of the games we were used to seeing looked oddly different due to Covid-19.
- Refs decreased from 2 to 1 in NRL
- Introduction of six-to-go rule for infringements at the ruck by defending teams instead of a penalty
- AFL list number changes
- Prohibition of handshakes between opponents, teammates and umpires
- Shorter quarters of play
- No running through banners before games.
Impact on lower levels
While the effect of Covid-19 on the highest level of sport played out quite publicly, the effects still filtered down to all levels.
- In terms of footy, SANFL and VFL both had their seasons cancelled, with other postponed
- Footy at a community level also suffered, by either being cancelled or condensed depending on the state
- All levels of soccer were promptly shut down
- Community rugby and soccer leagues either cancelled or postponed from premier grade down, resulting in condensed fixtures
- Community cricket was put on hold and progressed with various restrictions as per state regulations.
Overall, it’s hard to say who drew the short sport straw. All things considered, I tend to feel that the financial uncertainty with the way tennis prize money and personal expenses works transcends the salary issues with contracted players from other sports. This isn’t helped by the fact that the main governing body (Tennis Australia) has had to fork out for international players to be able to make the main tournament of the season work. In terms of changes to the fundamentals of the main competitions, sports like AFL, NRL and soccer suffered in a different capacity, due to the fact that they’re season is centred around one drawn one competition. On the other hand, the tennis season is structured around hundreds of tournaments, and players ultimately have a choice of which ones they desire to compete in. This flexibility would suggest that the effect of Covid-19 on the other major sports has been a bit harsher in relation to season obligations as a whole. To add to that, in game changes are negligible where tennis is concerned.
The recent events that are still unfolding around player dissatisfaction amidst disapproval from the public shines a light on the conditions in which one of the biggest events of the tennis calendar must survive. With the 2021 Australian Open limping to a point of bare existence, we can also see the cascading effect of the pandemic on the tennis season in general – the end of January has usually seen the conclusion of the Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney (or ATP cup that has recently replaced it) and Hobart International tournaments, which traditionally serve as preparation tournaments in the lead up to the big dance of the Aussie summer of tennis. It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds – what we do know for sure though, is that Covid-19 will leave a nasty legacy for athletes at all points of the map.