SYDNEY (Reuters) - As Australians embarked on the unprecedented novelty of a weekend without sport on Saturday, negotiations continued between professional leagues and players over wage cuts to ensure they survive the coronavirus shutdown.
Top flight soccer, Australian Rules and rugby league action continued behind closed doors up until last Sunday when government measures to control the pandemic forced them to suspend their seasons indefinitely.
After containment steps were ramped up over the week, the fields and beaches around the country usually packed with children and adults taking part in community sports were all but empty on Saturday.
As of early Saturday, there were 3,378 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia, with 14 deaths linked to the virus.
The desperate efforts by the professional leagues to fulfil their broadcasting contracts and keep the revenue flowing underscored the parlous state of their finances without it.
The pay cuts and payoffs that have followed further highlighted the challenges of carrying on for the rest of the year.
Even the wealthiest and best-attended of the professional sports, the Australian Football League (AFL), has been forced to agree pay cuts with the players who would usually be playing in front of huge crowds at this stage of the Australian autumn.
In a deal struck with the union on Friday, the Australian rules players, whose season was stopped after only one round of matches, have agreed to a 50 to 70 percent reduction in payments depending on how long the suspension continues.
“The players always understood the gravity of the situation and have agreed to take significant pay cuts to ensure we can keep the industry going,” said AFL Gillon McLachlan.
And on Saturday, netball players in the Super Netball league agreed to a two-week holiday from Monday followed by active rest for three weeks at a 70 percent reduction in pay.
The National Rugby League (NRL), the dominant professional code in Australia’s eastern states, is still negotiating with the union representing their players but savage cuts in wages of up to 87 percent are expected.
Local media reported that the NRL on Monday will present a revised deal to the players and clubs, who have been forced to reduce their workforce temporarily.
Melbourne Storm said coach Craig Bellamy, chief executive Dave Donaghy and some other staff will take 50% pay cuts as they try to wade through the financial stress.
Australia’s soccer federation laid off 70 percent of its staff on Friday and Perth Glory, A-League runners-up last season, stood down all their players and staff on Saturday, prompting a threat of legal action from the players’ union.
The sport suffered a further jolt with Newcastle Jets confirming that a player in their A-League squad has returned a positive test for the virus.
“The player and his family are in good health, and currently in quarantine in accordance with NSW Health protocols,” the Jets said, adding that the squad was being closely monitored.
Rugby union, widely accepted as the football code with the biggest financial challenge, suspended talks with the Rugby Union Players Association on Friday pending Rugby Australia’s annual general meeting on Monday, local media reported.
The situation was similar across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, where even the coaching staff of the famed All Blacks, who claim to be the most successful national team in any sport in the world, have agreed to reduced wages.
“It’s a dire state when you can’t play a game,” Ian Foster, the head coach of the team that sets the standard in rugby union, told Radio Sport on Saturday.
“We’re obviously in a high-cost, high-revenue industry, and when the revenue dies, you’re left with high costs. So it’s a no-brainer. There’s going to be some pain.”
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Shri Navaratnam