“I think so [that there was enough consultation],” McLachlan said on Friday. “We have a competition committee that met regularly through the year with representation from the vast majority of the clubs.
“I certainly have had feedback from the comp committee that there were no surprises in the decisions [the rule changes] to them.”
On state league angst about zones he said: “We have always trialled rules in the VFL and other competitions. I understand people don’t like change but I feel it’s the right place to be doing that.”
The challenge for AFL football boss Steven Hocking and the competition committee, McLachlan said, was knock-on effects of rule changes.
“Everyone sitting in the calm light of day wants less congestion and they’re working through that in the way they think is the best way,” he said.
McLachlan also said he believed the players enjoyed the condensed part of the fixture in 2020, and there was an appetite for it again from clubs.
No decision has been made for the timing of next year’s grand final either, he said, leaving the door open for another night affair.
He said it would be highly unlikely 2020 would have 16-minute quarters and that the league is not planning or forecasting for hubs in 2021, although there are contingencies for that if need be.
McLachlan said the fixture could be released later than usual to give more certainty in a fast changing landscape.
The Age reported this could be as late as February.
“Our plan and our start date will be 18 March next year, 22-round season,” McLachlan said.
“We look into 2021 knowing COVID will still be around. We are going to have to work through it to an extent. How pervasive it is and what the impacts are we don’t know.
“The later we can release the fixture the more certainty we can give our clubs, our players and our supporters.”
McLachlan said the AFLW season was similarly fluid but a fixture would need to be released in early December so players can make work plans before the early February start.
Meanwhile, the AFL has released plans for a $225 million Marvel Stadium revamp in conjunction with the state government.
This includes new lighting, new outdoor communal areas, male and female change rooms, new entrances, revamped concourse spaces and upgrades to the stadium’s exterior.
“When construction starts we will be able to commence with the games ongoing,” he said. “The seating bowl will be largely unaffected.”
Collingwood president Eddie McGuire believes the AFL should consider starting the 2021 season in mid-February in order to increase the chances of getting a season away in the face of any potential COVID-19 setbacks.
AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said in September the league was aiming to return to its regular start window of late March in 2021, by which time he was hopeful some fans would be able to attend.
With a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in South Australia, McGuire said it was an indication the AFL should look to commence its 2021 season as soon as possible, which would then allow it to potentially complete even more games by year’s end.
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Pies admit salary cap squeeze
“It’s why I’ve been pushing we should be starting the footy season in mid-Feb. I just think if we get them away quickly at the MCG, Marvel Stadium, kids are back at school, everyone’s desperate to watch a game of footy again,” he said on Triple M’s Hot Breakfast.
“Even then, you could have a break in the middle of the season, a three-week break for the Olympics, then if you’ve got the 17 games done you might come back and play another 10 games and get a 27, 28-game season.
“If the broadcasters are up for it then it could help mitigate the salary cap issues. Players tell me all the time they’d rather play more games and train less.
“Of course time is of the essence, if you’re going to do something like that it has got to happen now, the decision would have to be made in the next two-to-three weeks.”
McGuire is part of the AFL’s competition committee, which is set to meet on Wednesday to discuss a variety of issues.
The AFL is already considering at least two rule changes for 2021.
Hastily, the AFL re-drew their plans, re-negotiating with banks, broadcasters, clubs and players, and announcing cuts. “We as an industry prepared for the worst, and we pretty much got most of the worst,” McLachlan said.
An early decision to streamline – shorter quarters, 17 rounds only – was made in anticipation of at least one disruption. It created wriggle room and proved crucial. “It gave us an envelope we could target,” McLachlan said. “With 17 rounds, we knew we could get there and have a season of integrity.”
There was argy-bargy. The clubs were reportedly eager to play round one, McLachlan hesitant. “What I’d say is that there was a difference of views across the industry – and great collaboration, too,” he said. “Diverse input meant good decisions.”
Neither then nor since has a dissenting voice been raised, unusual in footy’s hyper-world. Evidently, this was too grave for grandstanding. “I believe our industry keeps secrets in-house when things are important,” McLachlan said. “I think the more frivolous things get out.”
Round one, played in eerie, booming silence in March, was in all ways isolated. Before it was over, the season was suspended as the pandemic’s grip tightened. “The trick then was starting, knowing it was almost inevitable you’d be stopping,” McLachlan said. “Some had doubts, but it was the right decision by all parties. I think it gave us a peg in the sand. It was the right decision to start, the right decision to stop.”
This was now full-blown crisis management. Parallels between the AFL and government are plain to see. The furloughing of staff meant that fewer people were involved in the AFL’s decision making. “In some ways, it was simpler,” said McLachlan. “The efficiency was a help.” But it was stressful, too. It wasn’t a war cabinet, but there was little peace.
Our industry keeps secrets in-house when things are important. The more frivolous things get out.
Like governments, the AFL had to weigh up the health and wellbeing of football people against the potential collapse of the football economy. McLachlan said there was a third element. “We also had responsibility for the health and wellbeing of millions of Australians for this game that they love, to get it back on and give them some hope and aspiration,” he said.
“That’s proved to be true. I don’t want to run ahead of ourselves, but I feel we’ve done our bit to get a lot of people through this very tough period.” By we, he means not HQ, not even temporary HQ, but everyone in the game.
“A word that was put into our lexicon very early by [then chief federal health officer] Brendan Murphy was ‘proportionate risk’,” McLachlan said. “It was an articulation that stuck with us. [It was] health and wellbeing as a priority, but [there was] also the game, and the economy of it, and the impact on so many Australians. We had to get going.”
Throughout, the AFL was working within ever-shifting and mostly tightening restrictions. Victoria’s infamous second wave, a surge in NSW and an understandable fortress mentality in WA, Tasmania and SA meant that the options kept shrinking and the competition kept contracting … towards Queensland. It’s not really footy’s heartland, but it became the game’s high ground. Marooned, footy turned to the Maroons.
“When the walls were closing in, Premier [Annastacia] Palaszczuk saying, ‘Yeah, come’, and then announcing it in parliament within the hour,” said McLachlan, “that was a huge moment. Without that, it would have been very difficult.” It also made a Gabba grand final all but inevitable.
This was Plan B, maybe C or D. The AFL did have one last contingency plan. “The bail-out option was to go into very hard hubs,” McLachlan said. “We could have gone into complete lockdown in jurisdictions. It just would have been much more difficult.
“In Queensland, obviously, players were on strict protocols, but they could still go for a takeaway coffee, get outside, go for a run outside the hotel compound. It’s meant the four months have been easier than they would have been. We always felt there was a way through, but it’s been better than it could have been.”
The AFL offered a boost to the Queensland economy – thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of bed-nights – but posed a risk, too. In the ceaseless swirl of matches and people, and remembering there were games also in Adelaide, Cairns, Darwin and Alice Springs, and a satellite hub in Perth, it must have felt to McLachlan like trying to herd livestock in his boyhood station upbringing, but without a dog or bike.
‘They’ve nurtured the game, and I feel the game has nurtured them, in this really terrible year.’
There were transgressions at at least nine clubs, incurring fines and suspensions of up to 10 weeks for Richmond pair Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones. McLachlan admits it tried the goodwill of the Queensland government. “Generally, our players have been great. I’m incredibly proud of them,” he said. “But I’m not saying there weren’t times when it got a little bit tense at the end.”
Most recently, Palaszczuk has been campaigning for re-election in a poll due next weekend, so could not afford even a moderate setback in hosting the refugees of the AFL. “That has created additional pressure,” McLachlan admitted.
For most footy people, most of this season, home has been where the hub is. They’ve been isolated far from wider family and friends, who in Victoria are still remote from each other.
But hubs also are cocoons. The single most jarring note in the whole complex exercise has been the way some footy people have presented as though imprisoned to fans who really are in solitary confinement. Belatedly, this dawned on some, and the messaging changed.
Besides, at some clubs, hub life tightened bonds and sharpened their sense of mission. You have to think that partly explains why for the first time in nearly a decade, there are two Victorian teams in the grand final.
McLachlan said he marvelled at how the footy world has risen together to this unprecedented challenge, no matter how onerous it became. This includes fans. TV ratings are up 20 per cent, which was predictable because TV has been the only way for most to watch games. But the AFL sold 30,000 memberships after the season was suspended, 30,000 tokens of solidarity. Again analogous to government, people were voting for Town Hall, a rarity.
“They’ve created this virtuous circle,” McLachlan said. “Everyone has bought into this season. They’ve nurtured the game, and I feel the game has nurtured them, in this really terrible year.”
Inescapably, this season has come at cost. There will be $150 million fewer TV dollars in the coffers in the immediate future, and the hubs themselves have cost around $60 million. The competition will be smaller, leaner and more brittle.
But there is upside. McLachlan said he imagined two lasting legacies from a surely unique season. “One is that we can be truly collegiate and collaborative as an industry,” he said. “And we can be greater for it.
“The other legacy is we can be more agile. We can make decisions quicker. We don’t need to set everything in stone for a year in advance. We can move much faster and the sky doesn’t fall in.” Even if tropical rainstorms sometimes made it look that way this year.
That’s not to say there haven’t been a record number of white knuckles and sweaty palms this year. McLachlan has been reluctant until now even to address an end-of-season review for fear of tempting fate, calamitously. Soon after speaking to The Age, it emerged that Tom Hawkins had skipped Geelong training because of a cough, and the jitters could be felt all the way up and down the eastern seaboard.
Personally, McLachlan has done it hard, but no harder than everyone else, he says. Once, for a moment, he wondered if he himself had COVID-19. Haven’t we all?
Now, though, the sweat he wipes off his forehead with the back of his hand is merely Gold Coast mid-morning humidity. “There were certainly moments when I felt this was very hard,” he said. “But no matter how bad it got, I always felt we would get there. Finishing by October 24 would always have been my best-case scenario.”
And here it is, and here – blinking either in disbelief or because of the Queensland sun – is the grand final.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.
McLachlan cited Brisbane as another example. Three or four years ago, there was an exodus and those who stayed needed reassurance from the AFL about their futures.
Since, the traffic has reversed. Luke Hodge and now Grant Birchall imported Hawthorn’s premiership know-how. Lachie Neale arrived to win this year’s Brownlow Medal, Charlie Cameron came from Adelaide at the same time and the Lions made this year’s preliminary final. Next year, another high-profile free agent, Joe Daniher, might lob.
“I think you create the right environment and players make decisions for their own reasons,” said McLachlan. “I think that’s how the system works.”
As McLachlan counted down the hours to the end of a unique season, he said that one of the lessons was that the game could be nimble. It means some of this year’s necessities might become next year’s virtues.
“Do we need to put the fixture out in advance?” he asked, rhetorically. “I think that might be a legacy. It’s under discussion now. Does the fixture have to be set in advance, or can we be more flexible?”
This season’s stringencies have meant the fixture was announced sometimes only a week in advance. Normally, the whole season is set in stone months beforehand and can’t be budged.
“The way it is just how it’s always been,” said McLachlan. “But does it need to be? Can you get better games on Friday nights by rolling out four to six weeks in advance? Can you have a fixture where people all lean in a bit better?”
This season’s other forced change was 16-minute quarters, reduced from 20 minutes, a measure to protect players in a more condensed roster. McLachlan said this was less likely to be retained. “We won’t do 16 minutes next year,” he said “Shorter’s not bad, but 16’s too short. We will look at it.”
AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan says mental health is “the biggest issue in our game” and stressed the importance of supporting coaches, players and staff members at all 18 clubs.
North Melbourne coach Rhyce Shaw is currently on personal leave after deciding to take time away from the game with Hawthorn counterpart Alastair Clarkson voicing his concerns about the stress coaches are under.
“I’m a bit concerned for our profession,” Clarkson told Fox Footy.
“Any coach that does it particularly tough has to carry it in his public life more so than what a coach would have to do in a much bigger market like America or Europe.
“I’m concerned and I think the game should be concerned because it’s an enormous burden to carry.”
McLachlan was asked on SEN’s Whateley whether he had reached out to Shaw and how the AFL is addressing the issue.
“I’ve reached out to the appropriate people I feel, yes,” he said.
“We are addressing it (mental health), we can always do better.
“We’ve made structural change, we did a large review last year, and Kate Hall is now the head of mental health.
“We’ve got a centralised model with decentralised execution so the clubs employ the best people to be looking after day-to-day the mental health of their staff, coaches and players.
“We’re putting more resourcing in … but it’s the biggest issue in our game and there’s various reasons for that, it’s a bigger, broader community issue.
“The uncertainty of tenure, the media scrutiny, social media, there is clearly a set of circumstances and an overlay that applies to our game and professional sports generally.
“Certainly in our game it’s a big challenge and the coaches are at the coalface of it.
“They (the coaches) need support. We have the structure in place, we’ve reviewed them, we keep investing and we’ve got to keep learning and keep getting better, because the issue is real.”
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan has admitted there were times he doubted it would be possible to get through the season due to constant changes to state borders restrictions.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan says the league faced “$1 billion of costs and no revenue” in March
McLachlan said fixturing was a particularly tough challenge due to the ever-changing environment
He said the league would survive if hubs were again required next season, but he was optimistic of a more normal 2021
The league was forced to shut down the competition after round one and when it resumed matches, then had to relocate teams out of Victoria.
“There were absolutely periods where you didn’t know where you were going the next day,” McLachlan said.
“There was a weekend where Travis Auld and Marcus King did the fixturing and we put out a fixture for the next week … on the Friday and then everything changed.
“We couldn’t go to one of the states … so then in 24 hours he had to reshape the whole next month … that sort of stuff was unthinkable at any time historically.”
McLachlan described the perilous state the industry was in as of March 22, when the league was forced to shut down the season.
“We had $1 billion of costs and no revenue in late March and no season,” McLachlan said.
“That was pretty tough. We had to renegotiate everything and we had to get a few pieces in place and renegotiate with the clubs and the players.
“Then when we got a line of credit, we sort of knew we were going to get through broadly.”
McLachlan said the changing nature of permitted travel meant there were all-nighters involved for those in the fixture department.
“When we got going, we had a run there where every day there was something,” he said.
“The Adelaide borders closed and the New South Wales borders were closing, then it looked like Queensland borders were closing. We couldn’t play in Victoria and then we had a positive [COVID-19 test result for Conor McKenna] … it was just coming one after the other.”
The AFL boss said even though HQ was optimistic about the 2021 season going ahead in Victoria, there are contingencies in place in case of further lockdowns.
He said that another season involving interstate hubs would not break the league financially, if it was necessary.
“We’ll have plans and get through it knowing it can’t be any tougher than doing things on the fly like this year, if we have to,” he said.
“The finances will be manageable because everyone will do their bit to get through … I think the Melbourne clubs have been away 19 weeks, so there are broader challenges, but if we need to, we’ll do what we need to get through.”
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan says he understands the debate over the lack of a no-fault stand down policy in the competition.
It comes as Sydney Swans young gun Elijah Taylor was stood down by the club on Tuesday after being charged with aggravated assault by West Australian Police.
Earlier this year, Collingwood star Jordan De Goey was charged over a sexual assault incident that is alleged to have taken placed in 2015.
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Ablett in line to play Swans
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However, De Goey wasn’t stood down and was a match-winner for the club against Geelong just weeks after.
The debate about the AFL following the NRL’s lead on a no-fault policy has taken centre stage following Taylor’s indiscretion, with his ex-partner speaking out about an incident on Sunday morning.
Speaking on Fox Footy’s AFL 360, McLachlan explained there was plenty of discussions going on behind the scenes.
“We’ve got a strong respect and responsibility, we take the advice of the experts and the formulation of that and it gets reviewed annually,” he explained.
“The debate this week has been about no-fault stand down. That’s been debated in the past. Our policy is based on the complaint at the centre and we treat every case on its merits and they are all different.”
“After that it is difficult to say, but I understand the debate.
“It’s a debated position that we don’t have the policy and we treat every case on their facts. It’s a good and fair debate and I’m sure it will happen at the end of the year.”
Welcome to sunny Queensland, home of the Great Barrier Reef, Wally Lewis and the 2020 AFL grand final.
A protracted process has reached its inevitable end, with the AFL officially awarding its coveted decider to Brisbane and the Gabba, taking the grand final out of Melbourne for the first time in VFL/AFL history.
This season of turmoil, reflecting and punctuating a year like no other, will end in a manner not a single person could have predicted even nine months ago: under the Gabba lights on October 24.
Even now it feels strange to contemplate, and generally speaking, we’ve become pretty good at recalibrating with the unimaginable this year.
Even though Queensland has been an unbackable favourite throughout this bidding process, what we will all experience on AFL grand final night will be as foreign and unfamiliar as the words “AFL grand final night”.
But perhaps the only thing stranger than the end result was the process that led to it, a process which saw the AFL shed its skin as an empirical corporate juggernaut and take the side of sentimentality.
In 2020, the tin man has grown a heart.
There were clearly many factors behind the decision to award the grand final to Queensland, but at the forefront was always a sense of gratitude and justice to the state for its service to the game in 2020.
The same lines would be echoed whenever the topic came up: “there wouldn’t have even been a season without Queensland” and “it just wouldn’t be right to have it anywhere else” prevailing throughout.
If fact, chief executive Gillon McLachlan basically went so far as to confirm that was the deciding factor between the Brisbane and Adelaide — which is on standby should Queensland’s rona situation deteriorate — bids.
“I think, in the end, in Queensland there was a view around the industry that given all the work they had done to help us, with so many teams based up here, that that is probably the overriding factor,” McLachlan said.
As an afterthought, he added, “they were strong in all areas”.
Of course, there was more to this call than simply wanting to thank Annastacia Palaszczuk and co for helping them out of a jam.
Expansion remains the AFL’s white whale, and the success of the game in Queensland and New South Wales has been at the forefront of so many league decisions over the last decade.
This season represents an opportunity like no other for Australian rules football to gain a foothold in Queensland.
Despite reports of an increase in TV viewership in the state, there has been no sudden surge in Sherrin ownership in Brisbane in 2020 — the talk of the town remains the struggling Broncos, the also-struggling Cowboys and Titans, and where Cameron Smith will play next season.
Will hosting a grand final change that? The AFL suggests it will and if the Lions happen to reach or even win said grand final, it may be right.
But even still it paints a picture of a decision based on intangibles, of taking a punt on a bit of a dark horse and relenting to the vibe of it all.
Because when you put it all down on paper, and go over the respective bids based on the sorts of metrics the AFL itself has traditionally used, there isn’t a whole lot in Brisbane’s favour.
If the half-hearted annual debate about the MCG’s permanent claim to the grand final and its implications for the integrity of the competition has taught us nothing, it’s that nothing short of a pandemic is going to take that game away from that city.
The justification given is pretty consistent too. Firstly, there’s a contract in place. But beyond that, you have to play the grand final at the MCG because it’s the biggest and best stadium in Australia, which helps the AFL pull in stupid amounts of money each year, and is the true traditional heartland of the game.
Had the AFL applied those same parameters to this decision, McLachlan would not have been proclaiming Brisbane the victor this afternoon.
That contractual obligation has, for obvious reasons, been voided for this one year, but if the AFL’s priority really was bringing in the biggest crowd and the most money possible, in the best and most modern stadium available and in a traditional footy location, the grand final would be in Perth or Adelaide.
Add in the fact that both WA and SA are in better situations COVID-wise than Queensland, and their weather conditions in late October will be far more footy-friendly, the logical, black and white case becomes inconveniently simple.
Now, none of this is to say the AFL has made a wrong or poor decision. Far from it — a Brisbane grand final is more than defensible and in the case of WA, the border situation would make things trickier (but still very possible).
It’s just a different kind of decision, one that perhaps the AFL would not have made even 12 months ago. It speaks to the collective trauma the game has been through this season — miniscule when put in a wider perspective but still significant for one of the country’s largest industries — that sentiment would be allowed to even enter the equation.
All year, McLachlan has spoken of the need to be “flexible and agile”, but perhaps he can now extend his mantra to add “fair”. At the end of the day, the feeling that playing the grand final in Brisbane is the most fair outcome has won the day.
It’s an admirable position to take. The next challenge is keeping that ethos alive.
If McLachlan and the AFL are able to take that forward into post-corona times, and are able to govern the game with flexibility and fairness at the forefront, even the states who have today missed out will be better for it in the long run.