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Northern Australia Could Break Footy Deadlock

  • Monday, May 04 2020 @ 08:12 am ACST
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Whilst the AFL is yet to formally state how and when the AFL season can restart after the enforced season postponement due to COVID-19, two northern cities might be the keys to fast tracking a start date.

Darwin has emerged as a potential location for a player hub (where all teams would be based for a set period of time to play out rounds) with its potential to have matches played in front of crowds as early as June. Cairns has also emerged as a potential hub for matches and teams with AFL Cairns having confirmed its interest in playing that role.

Both cities possess multiple venues, milder winter conditions than the colder southern states, strong following of the game and, most importantly, have low cases of COVID-19. The Northern Territory had recorded just 28 cases, whilst Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service had reported 33 cases. Both figures are extremely low compared to the major Australian cities.
Whilst Cairns is yet to commit to any concrete timeline for playing local football, adhering to the wider Queensland state directives, the Northern Territory government has moved to a June 5th date for sport to be played with crowds.

The AFL is very interested in the prospect of playing matches or setting up a hub in Darwin, largely due to the COVID-19 statistics, but heavily driven by the idea of playing in front of crowds. It is accepted that the remainder of the proposed season revamp for the AFL will most likely be completed without crowds. Darwin provides hope.

AFL boss, Gillon McLachlan, teased that the Darwin option might be a path forward. Of the possibility, McLachlan said, “I don’t think anyone contemplated that [Northern Territory sport recommencing on 5th June].
“People have flagged it’s unlikely [that planned AFL matches will have crowds] but when we’ve seen what’s happened in Darwin we don’t rule anything out.”

The Northern Territory’s Chief Minister Michael Gunner has said Darwin is the “safest place in Australia”.

He told Sky News, “You can play a footy game, you can have a crowd”.

“It’s the dry season up here in Darwin, it's a magic place to be.”

The Northern Territory’s Sports Minister Lauren Moss also weighed in to support the idea of a Darwin hub. In an interview with ABC Sport she stated, “In terms of our ability generally to be a hub for the AFL – absolutely I think we could”.

“The expectation first and foremost is we want to protect the health of Territorians – that is always going to be our first priority.

AFL Cairns president Garry Young has confirmed Cairns’ interest also. An unnamed AFL club put forward the idea that Cairns would make an idea hub due to its proven ability to host AFL matches, multiple venues (Cazalys Stadium as well as local suburban grounds). One theory is that Cairns could host up to six teams, if a “hub” option was introduced by the AFL. Like Darwin, Cairns has produced many AFL players over recent years that has led to it becoming a strong Australian Football destination. Since 2011, the Gold Coast Suns, Richmond, Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne have invested substantially in the region both on and off the field.

One factor at play here also is that the AFL’s decisions will be the trigger for other leagues across Australia and the world announcing their own returns to football. Whilst Asian, European, African and American markets will be subject to the COVID-19 landscape within their boundaries, countries like New Zealand – another country with low disease rates – might look to start dates sooner rather than later.

Both cities are keen to have some good fortune also. The Darwin-based NT Thunder NEAFL team closed its doors at the end of last season due to financial reasons, resulting in a key part of their program ceasing. AFL Cairns lost their annual AFL premiership match in 2018 and is keen to find a way to re-enter that market.

The issues are still being thrashed out by the AFL, the AFLPA (Players Association), clubs and competing regions across the nation, the emergence of Darwin and Cairns as contenders may be the catalyst for footy to come back quicker than many thought.