By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The Australian government’s call for sacrifice and solidarity in the face of the coronavirus shutdown has gone unheeded in the country’s most popular sporting competition with Australian Rules footballers at loggerheads with officials over pay cuts.
The coronavirus outbreak, like it has done to the broader economy, has taken a wrecking ball to the nation’s professional sports, idling hundreds of players and staff in Australian Rules football, along with hundreds more in rugby league and soccer.
With no product to sell and no revenue coming in, leagues stand to lose tens of millions of dollars every week they remain suspended, raising warnings they could fold before long.
Austerity measures have already hit the Australian Football League (AFL), the top flight of Australian Rules, which shut down on Sunday after only one round of championship matches.
With the season suspended until at least the end of May, Australian Rules’ governing body has stood down 80% of staff, with top executives agreeing a 20% pay cut.
The AFL’s 18 clubs have mothballed their football departments and sent players home for the duration of the shutdown but tense negotiations over player pay cuts boiled over on Wednesday.
The top players can earn over A$1 million ($603,000) per season in the high-contact indigenous game, though average wages are about a third of that — a far cry from the salaries enjoyed in top European soccer leagues or in the major U.S. sports.
The AFL have offered players 25% of their pay for the duration of the shutdown but the union has insisted they retain at least half.
AFL players’ union president Patrick Dangerfield, a top midfielder for the Geelong Cats and one of the game’s highest earners, accused the AFL of withholding information.
«Are we prepared to take longer term cuts? Absolutely,» Dangerfield told Melbourne radio station SEN on Wednesday.
«We need full transparency from the AFL so we can make the right decisions for players and the game. We haven’t had those as yet.»
OUT OF STEP
With thousands of Australians losing their jobs because of the virus shutdown, the players’ stance has irked the AFL’s old guard and triggered criticism from some fans.
Leigh Matthews, a board member at the Brisbane Lions club and one of the game’s all-time greats, slammed them for not agreeing to a bigger cut.
«They’re out of step with most of the world, let alone the rest of the football community,» the 68-year-old told local radio station 3AW.
Similar debates are playing out in the National Rugby League (NRL), which suspended its season indefinitely on Monday.
Players are resigned to their salaries being hit but some of the bigger earners have offered to take steeper cuts to help lower-paid colleagues absorb the blow.
The league and players union, who held talks on Wednesday, hope to strike a deal by the end of the week.
«The NRL and the players are absolutely aligned in our desire to ensure the game gets through this crisis,» they said in a joint statement.
(Editing by Peter Rutherfordpeter.firstname.lastname@example.org; +822 6936 1482)