Aussie Rules, Australia's favourite sport, bounces back

by Martin PARRY
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Collingwood have been training in Melbourne ahead of AFL's return

Australia's biggest spectator sport Aussie Rules returns to action on Thursday after a long COVID-19 shutdown, in the clearest sign yet that the sports-mad country is slowly returning to normality.

Fans will be barred for the first ball to be bounced, with the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground -- which regularly has 100,000 fans at Aussie Rules games -- empty for a blockbuster battle between Collingwood and reigning champions Richmond.

But the turnstiles will be open to just over 2,000 spectators on Saturday for the Adelaide derby between the Crows and Port, with the state of South Australia confident it is on top of the coronavirus.

It will be the biggest crowd at an Australian sporting event in months and follows New Zealand's Super Rugby Aotearoa announcing that stadiums will be open to fans this weekend.

The Australian Football League (AFL) was forced to suspend its season in mid-March after just one round -- a devastating blow for the distinctive, oval-ball sport, which is similar to Ireland's Gaelic football.

It makes its return a fortnight after Australia's National Rugby League, which locked in a revised TV deal with broadcasters quicker than its arch-rival.

A domestic competition between Australia's Super Rugby teams is aiming for a July 3 kick-off, but no date has been set for football's A-League to restart.

A day before kick-off, the AFL was yet to finalise an adjusted broadcast agreement, but chief executive Gillion McLachlan said he was not concerned.

"We're working through the impact of this season and I don't think anyone should worry about it too much," he said.

- Sigh of relief -

According to media reports, the AFL has been pocketing an average Aus$417 million (US$ 288 million) a year in TV rights as part of a lucrative six-year deal that expires at the end of 2022.

McLachlan will have to accept a reduction on that as the sport grapples with a shutdown that has proved to be one of the most serious threats since a league was first established in 1896.

Staring at the loss of broadcast money, sponsorship, and ticket sales, players -- some earning in excess of Aus$1 million (US$690,000) a season -- agreed to savage pay cuts.

AFL bosses, meanwhile, managed to secure a line of credit reportedly worth up to Aus$600 million to help it survive as revenues dried up.

McLachlan has indicated the league will move quickly to repay the debt and expressed confidence that all 18 top-flight Aussie Rules teams would survive.

And he is breathing a sigh of relief that after an almost three-month hiatus, the sport is finally back.

"As a fan, I am just looking forward to watching some footy, to be honest with you. I am starting to get excited."

Officials are confident all remaining games can be played during an extended season, with strict health and safety protocols in place around players and their families.

The league has tentatively set October 24 for its grand final, a month later than usual, with McLachlan hoping by then that 100,000 people can cram the MCG to watch it.

"Clearly we will be guided by the governments and health officials but every day that goes past we get a bit more confident," he said.

Collingwood have been training in Melbourne ahead of AFL's return

Aussie Rules is Australia's most popular spectator sport

Most games will be played in front of empty stands

The AFL season has been suspended since March