This is an edited extract from A Season Like No Other: AFL 2020 by Ashley Browne published by Hardie Grant Books.

Chapter 19, ‘Fixing the Fixture’

When the AFL competition resumed on June 11, there was genuine optimism that Australia had successfully flattened the coronavirus curve and that life would soon return to a so-called post-COVID normal, at least until the rollout of an approved vaccine.

Victoria had announced a significant easing of restrictions on May 24 and on June 6 and 9, recorded the first day with no new cases of the virus since April 27. Nationally, around this time, there were fewer than 10 new cases per day. Measures such as border closures and remote working and learning had been hard to bear, but ultimately had proven successful. Australians had grown almost comfortable with the new norms of social distancing, elbow bumps and constant hand-washing.

Plans were afoot to start opening up the country and that included bringing crowds back to the footy. Two thousands fans were at Adelaide Oval for the Showdown in round two and the following weekend, crowds began trickling back to venues in New South Wales and Queensland; numbers were capped at a few hundred and regulations were tight.

There were hopes that Victoria might not be too far behind and some preliminary reports suggested the round five Collingwood-Essendon game, scheduled for the MCG on a Friday night might be open to a reduced, COVID-safe crowd. “There might have been a preliminary chat about crowds,” Martin Pakula said. “I remember driving back from Torquay on the phone to Stuart Fox at the MCG and he was saying they reckoned they could manage a crowd of between 25,000 and 30,000,” he said.

Gillon McLachlan was similarly optimistic. “Victoria was going as well as anywhere at one stage,” he remembered. “We didn’t have a date but looking broadly, we thought crowds might be back by July. I’m not betraying confidences here. We were having those discussions with the Victorian Government as we were with the other states. Crowds were going to be an option. But as has been the nature with this virus it pivots hard and it turned hard in Victoria. We were getting crowds in other states and then in Victoria what happened, happened.”

What happened was a sharp increase in the number of new coronavirus cases, across Melbourne in particular. Within a week of those celebrated donut days in early June, the daily numbers were trending the wrong way, back into double figures. It took some time to establish exactly how and why, but within weeks it became clear that the source of almost all new cases was via an employee at one of Melbourne’s quarantine hotels. On June 20, as the number of daily new cases in Victoria reached 25—the first time since March it had been that high—Premier Daniel Andrews was concerned enough to announce tightened restrictions throughout the state. This was the same day Conor McKenna’s positive test caused the postponement of the following day’s Essendon-Melbourne clash.

It was enough for the AFL to take a more cautious approach to its fixture and to start releasing future rounds via a drip feed. On June 24, the round six fixture was announced. One day later came round seven. At that stage the League was keeping the faith with Victoria, with 11 games scheduled for the MCG and Marvel Stadium over that fortnight.

Purchase your copy of A Season Like No Other: AFL 2020 HERE

The best-laid plans often go to waste and at the end of June and the beginning of July, events in Victoria were changing by the day, sometimes by the hour. Coronavirus numbers continued to spiral out of control in Victoria as community transmissions grew, with 30 new cases on June 26, followed by 41, 49 and 75 on the following days. By July 1, the situation in Melbourne had become so dire that several suburbs in the north of the city were declared hot spots, with residents unable to leave their homes other than for essential reasons. Any AFL players, officials, umpires, club football department staff and match-day staff, living in those areas were required to make alternative living arrangements. The Age reported that every Melbourne-based club—with the exception of Hawthorn—had people living in those areas, and they all had to beat a hasty retreat from their homes to comply with the AFL’s new requirement.

That weekend’s round five went ahead as scheduled. But the five games in Victoria—one at GMHBA Stadium and two each at Marvel Stadium and the MCG—were played with a sense of duty and obligation rather than any pleasure. Footy without fans was no fun for anyone. St Kilda played its first five matches in Melbourne and captain Jarryn Geary was not impressed with the outcome: “Initially, I didn’t think it would have too much of an effect, but once you ran out there it was bizarre. It didn’t feel real, or like a proper game. You felt like you were going through the motions a bit.”

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 5, Richmond beat Melbourne by 27 points in their round five clash at the MCG in what would be the final game played in Melbourne for the season. It was time for footy to get out of town and get out of the virus’s way.

Footy’s departure from its heartland was done with grace and goodwill. What people at the AFL recall from this incredibly frantic period was that clubs and players did what they were asked without hesitation and without question. The spirit of collaboration and willingness to help the common good that marked endless Zoom meetings during the shutdown period re-emerged. It was that co-operation that helped the season get back on track in such fragile circumstances. There was widespread awareness and acceptance that if the game had to shut down again in 2020, there might not be any coming back.

Round six was historic. For starters, it was the third go for Travis Auld and Marcus King, the League’s fixturing and broadcasting manager to put this round together. The first had been announced the previous October, the next had been released only one week before. The third iteration was ground-breaking because with Victoria now out of bounds and South Australia and Western Australia still finalising the rules by which AFL games could be played in their states, the entire round was to be played in New South Wales and Queensland. The SCG hosted one game and Giants Stadium two, while north of the border, the Gabba was home to two matches and Metricon Stadium four, including a double-header on the Saturday. Comparisons were made with the round eight, 1952, which became known as the ‘Propaganda Round’ in which games were played in Sydney, Brisbane, Hobart, Albury, Euroa and Yallourn, at the same time as a state game was held at the MCG.

The competition was paddling furiously to keep afloat. It was genuine crisis management that led to such a schedule but for those with a passion for growing the game nationally, round six was a milestone to remember.

There were many at the AFL who were burning the midnight oil to keep the season afloat, but King went beyond that, working through the night on several occasions creating version after version of the fixture. King a lawyer, has been with the AFL since 2014, and, after initially assisting with the fixture in 2016, has been managing fixturing and broadcasting for the past four seasons, reporting to Auld.

Ordinarily, creating the AFL fixture takes about three months, with a six week-grind from the middle of September until its release towards the end of October. Grind may be a little harsh, but with the number of vested interests and with any minor changes causing the dominoes to fall, grind is pretty close to the mark. During the creation of the fixture, the AFL has long partnered with a Canadian firm, Optimal Planning Solutions, which also has relationships with many of the world’s leading sports leagues.

There aren’t many sporting schedules in world sport more complicated than that of the AFL. Think of all the preconditions that need to be considered, such as nine Victorian clubs ostensibly sharing just two venues, a minimum of five-day breaks, no back-to-back travel, no same-day scheduling of clashes featuring the Eagles and the Dockers, the Crows and the Power, the Lions and the Suns and the Swans and the Giants, the strong demand to play Thursday- and Friday-night games, as well as the various one-off requests to play games on certain dates and times to mark a milestone or an anniversary.

Add the competitive balance requirement that teams play more games against those that finished in a similar ladder position the season before, and of course, every team wanting a commercially lucrative home game against the high-drawing Richmond, Essendon and Collingwood. These are just some of the incredible complexities that King and his team face and the fine line they must walk every year. Grind indeed.

Once the AFL resumed in 2020, fixturing became simpler in some respects. The 17-game season meant each team would play the other teams just once. As teams left Victoria, there were no more MCG or Marvel Stadium tenant clubs whose requirements had to be juggled. The idea of a ‘home game’ meant nothing more than having the first choice of shorts and sponsors on the scoreboard, which team ‘owned’ the LED signage and which team list would appear in the left-hand column in the centre pages of the AFL Record.

Five-day breaks between games have long been scheduled by the AFL with great reluctance and usually only in special circumstances. But in 2020, they became the norm and when the crush of games really began in the middle of the season, four-day breaks were introduced as well. There were added complications around risk, governance and compliance insisted by state governments and their health authorities as the season went on, while the COVID-safe requirement that teams travel to games and return on the same day where possible, also meant that flight availability and airport curfews came into play. Virgin Australia, the League’s official carrier, was also in administration, adding a further wrinkle to the deliberations of King and his team when it came to moving teams quickly and efficiently through Australia’s restricted state borders.

“There were times when I was tearing my hair out, and so were the Canadians,” said King describing a period when he would regularly work through the night with the team at Optimal because of the time difference with Canada.

Multiple conversations had to take place with various stakeholders before each batch of games could be finalised, which explains why there were stages during the year when they could only be released a round at a time. “I was in the trenches but not alone,” King recalled. “The fixture had different elements, with government and border restrictions and we could not release it until we had sign off from government and health officials. We had people such as Simon Clarke (head of compliance and risk) and Jude Donnelly (head of government relations) leading those discussions. For example, we were trying to do rounds six and seven. I’m doing versions and asking whether they will be signed off by government, and the South Australian Government would come back and say no, because they wouldn’t allow a team to come into the state that had been in Victoria in the last 14 days.”

King said there was no point having a map of Australia showing a flow chart of who could go where and when because facts on the ground were changing every day, especially in early July as coronavirus numbers in Victoria led to the mass exodus of teams from that state. “I’m dealing with issues in Queensland and New South Wales, while I’m learning about an issue in South Australia. There was a lot of learning going on at the same time. It was critical when doing the fixture that you always knew what the government position was and what the border restrictions were.”

These constant communications meant AFL’s relationship with governments around the country were tested like never before, with the AFL constantly needed to change its fixture to ensure it was in line with government policy in each state. “There were a few (times) there where we basically redid the fixture three times in three days,” he said.

At one stage, the fixture release slowed to a trickle, with teams finishing a game and not knowing who their next opponent would be, or where the match would be played. Adam Simpson recalls meeting with his coaches one Monday to begin researching their next opponent, only to be interrupted and told that the fixture had just changed and that the Eagles would need to prepare to play someone else.

Governments were always the first to sign off on the fixture. “It was really important all year that we followed their advice,” King explained. “Once you got past that point you had other stakeholders—broadcasters, venues, clubs and players—but everyone was fantastic. With an ordinary fixture you get some grief from clubs, but we weren’t getting that this time and the AFLPA was also terrific. Their ability to be flexible on things like breaks between games was very important.”

King initially thought his biggest challenge for the year would be rescheduling the round three Essendon-Melbourne clash after Conor McKenna’s positive COVID test, but that proved almost to be the least of his concerns in what was a tumultuous year. “The way we approached the entire year was that we would find a way,” he said, mirroring one of McLachlan’s oft-repeated lines through the year. “That was the way we operated. Not finding a way we operated. Not finding a way never occurred to me. I just knew we’d get there.”

Purchase your copy of A Season Like No Other: AFL 2020 HERE