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Sport’s year from hell: How coronavirus killed the golden geese of professional sport

A Wallabies player holds in his head in his hands as he reflects on the loss to England at the Rugby World Cup.A Wallabies player holds in his head in his hands as he reflects on the loss to England at the Rugby World Cup.
Rugby Australia has endured two difficult years, only for COVID to make things even worse.(AP: Christophe Ena)

The pandemic effectively dismantled the struggling Super Rugby competition,

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken Australian professional sport to the core.

In the space of a few months as lockdowns forced changes, hundreds of people lost their jobs and as much as a billion dollars was wiped from the Australian elite sporting landscape.

The big three codes — AFL, NRL and cricket — basked for decades in lucrative television rights that allowed expansion, high salaries, and other bells and whistles, but the pandemic has shown it was all built on shifting sands.

No sport proved immune.

So, as we approach the business end of the football season, we do a stocktake of the major Australian sports and how they’ve fared in season COVID.

Players were forced to take a 50 per cent pay cut, leaving some individuals hundreds of thousands out of pocket, while many assistant coaches left clubs never to return.

The AFL arranged a $600 million line of credit secured by the Docklands stadium, which allowed the season to continue while the 18 teams retreated first from Victoria, then New South Wales, to hubs in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.

The AFL has spent $60 million on relocating and accommodating the teams, coaches and their families in the Queensland.

The AFL expects its revenue this year to fall by up to $400 million — around a third of its projected revenue — while 20 per cent of its staff have been cut.

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In June, the AFL announced a two-year extension of its six-year deal with broadcast partners Seven West Media, taking it until 2024, but with a cost reduction of $87 million.

Gillon McLachlan speaks at a press conferencesGillon McLachlan said the AFL needed to change its business model.(ABC News)

The AFL also negotiated a new deal with Foxtel, but without the extension until 2024.

And finally, it lost hundreds of millions in gate takings thanks to socially reduced crowds and fewer games in this COVID season.

The financial pain is expected to continue next year.

“We need to significantly change our business model for not only the AFL but the wider football community,” said the AFL’s chief executive, Gillon McLachlan.

Meanwhile, the clubs are expecting they will have to reduce their spending on coaches and other support staff by about 36 per cent and reduce player list sizes.

The full extent of club losses will become clear when they release their annual financial statements later this year.

The AFLW is set to go ahead next year with its 14-team competition, although the full details of the competition are yet to be released.

But clubs have already sacked coaches and are cutting hard around support staff.

Of all the Australian sports, the AFL is best placed to ride out the storm, thanks to its ownership of Docklands stadium, the TV deal, albeit on reduced terms, and the enormous supporter based and passion for the game — the clubs merely lost a combined 67,000 members this year despite none of the Melbourne-based supporters being able to attend a single game.

But with so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, there is no indication what next year’s season will look like and a myriad of questions yet to be answered

The AFL intends to pay off the debts of 2020 as quickly as possible, but will have to spend millions to prop up many clubs that have suffered huge losses this season.

The NRL did eventually agree to a new deal with Nine that cost the league upwards of $80 million over the course of this season and the remaining two years of the contract.

The NRL’s other broadcast partner, Fox Sports, also cut a new deal without releasing figures, but it’s safe to assume the savings were considerable given it has a greater portion of rugby league’s broadcast rights.

In June, CA said it expected revenue to be cut by half, resulting in losses of $320 over the next two seasons.

Chief executive Kevin Roberts, who announced the cuts and the board’s rational,

CA and the broadcaster, along with Pay-TV partner Foxtel, have been renegotiating a new contract for weeks without a breakthrough and some interim instalments have been held back.

In the meantime, doubts remain over the summer schedule, featuring the Big Bash and all-important four-test series against India — it will take place, but where and when is yet to be nailed down.

It’s not clear whether a one-off test against Afghanistan due for early in the season will even be played.

But a series of women’s T20 and one-day matches between Australia and New Zealand is starting today, and CA announced the WBBL will go ahead with all teams staying and playing games at Sydney’s Olympic Park precinct.

Cricket Australia’s reputation has taken a hammering this year and while the elite level of the game will survive, the damage to the grass-roots game has been enormous.

Rugby Union

Rugby Australia has suffered two years of terrible publicity, and it only got worse when the pandemic hit.

Embattled CEO Raelene Castle resigned in April after being told she no longer had the support of the board and was eventually replaced by interim CEO Rob Clarke.

That was after Castle rejected a new five-year TV rights offer from long-term partner Fox Sports, understood to be far less than the existing $57 million annual deal.

Instead, the sport went out to tender and is still yet to pick up a broadcast partner for beyond this season.

A Wallabies player holds in his head in his hands as he reflects on the loss to England at the Rugby World Cup.A Wallabies player holds in his head in his hands as he reflects on the loss to England at the Rugby World Cup.Rugby Australia has endured two difficult years, only for COVID to make things even worse.(AP: Christophe Ena)

The pandemic effectively dismantled the struggling Super Rugby competition, which eventually resumed as separate competitions in Australia and New Zealand, while South Africa abandoned competition altogether.

With the future of Super Rugby still a matter of conjecture, broadcasters are wondering what they are bidding for.

While the Rugby Championship will go ahead later this year, Foxtel boss Patrick Delany indicated earlier this month’s that the broadcaster wouldn’t be losing sleep if it missed out on Rugby Union.

He nailed the problem with the ruthless Australian sporting market when he said: “to be frank, there are too many sports in Australia with too big an expectation and too small a population.”

To make matters worse for rugby, this week it lost its most loyal sponsor, Qantas, and with it $5 million annually.

Earlier in the year, the players agreed to an average 60 per cent pay cut, while RA slashed 47 of its 142 full time and also cut another 30 contractors and casuals.

Football

A footballer with her back to camera celebrates a goal with teammates in Olympic football qualifier.A footballer with her back to camera celebrates a goal with teammates in Olympic football qualifier.Football did have one win this year, being awarded the women’s World Cup hosting rights.(AAP: Darren Pateman)

The W-League managed to squeak in the grand final just before the COVID shutdown, but not so the A-League.

The season was put on hold between March and July and like all other sports, cuts followed.

Football Federation Australia stood down 70 per cent of its staff, although half have since resumed work.

With TV ratings already plummeting, Foxtel negotiated a fresh TV deal, worth just over half what it had previously been paying and only for one more season.

Meanwhile, the male and female players have been embroiled in a bitter pay fight with the clubs over a new collective bargain agreement.

Melbourne City’s Rostyn Griffiths this week said the A-League would face “mass desertions” if the club owners didn’t agree to the new CBA.

There was some good news for soccer with Australia and New Zealand winning a joint bid to host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

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Source:: ABC News

    

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