By sports editor Russell Bennett
At a time when each passing day brings with it far more questions than answers for everyday Aussies, AFL Outer East has moved to assure its clubs and people that football and netball will always be there for them when the Covid-19 pandemic has eased.
But for now, there are much more pressing issues than the bounce of a ball.
AFL Outer East region general manager Aaron Bailey spoke about the reality facing the game at a grassroots level at the moment, but was quick to emphasise that the health and wellbeing of the people involved are priority number one.
“This is a horrible time for a lot of organisations and businesses, and certainly we’re being affected,” he said.
“But we’re in a position to come through the other side, which is pleasing.
“We’ll be able to resume – whether that’s in 2020, or 2021 – and come back in a good place.
“We’ve had to put some staff on leave without pay in the interim, but it’s really pleasing we could find them some other work in the short-term and our intention is to bring all our staff back.”
Of course, there’s so much conjecture about just when community football and netball will return, and there can be no guarantees it will be in 2020.
“Our aim is to try and get back to competition this year – we’re going to release some options around returning to play later in the year,” Bailey explained.
“We’re in the fortunate position where we have three grounds without cricket pitches, which does give us the option – if we have to – of going well into October.
“We’re open to anything, but the key thing for us is that if we do come back in 2020, we have to make sure it’s financially viable for our clubs.
“What we won’t be doing is coming back if it puts our clubs under pressure. We’d prefer to hold our position and trade through this period into 2021, if the alternative was putting our clubs under pressure by making them come back.”
At the moment, AFL Outer East is working through various options with its clubs on just what the competition structure might look like if players are to return to the footy field and netball court in 2020.
“Certainly there’s a lot of work being done around salary caps and getting them down to a level that’s sustainable,” Bailey said.
“May 31 gives us a little bit of time to achieve this, but what we’ll present to our clubs is that if we’re coming back at date ‘A’ or date ‘B’, this is what it’d cost. Does this work for you? Is this achievable or viable?
“We don’t want them to be worse off for coming back this year. That’s the last thing we want. That’s front of mind in our thinking, and our planning, as we look to come back.”
While competition play in 2020 is anything but guaranteed, AFL Outer East is exhausting all its options to see what’s possible.
“For us, I think there’s a wellbeing aspect to it – if we can get people back involved in the footy and back following their clubs at the back end of this, I think we’ve got a responsibility to try, but it has to be done sensibly,” Bailey said.
“It’ll have to be done in a way that’s viable for clubs, and actually supports them.
“We think there’s still hope, but who knows in this current landscape.
“What we’re doing right now is calling all our clubs to understand where they are. Our primary focus will be the clubs that need our support most, and when we come out of this we’re going to help the clubs there too – whether there’s competition this season or not.”
Sporting clubs provide so much more than just an outlet to play footy or netball. They provide a genuine sense of belonging – connectivity to friends, family, and the wider community – and the mental health battles currently facing many local club members are also front of mind for Bailey.
“One of our biggest concerns moving forward is the mental health and well-being aspect of all of this,” he said.
“There’ll be club members with potential issues around employment and housing, and one of our key responsibilities here – before football or netball – is to make sure that the welfare of our communities and their people come first.
“If we can get back to competition at some stage this year we think it’ll help with that, but at the moment we’ve just got to be there for our clubs.
“Our key message at the moment is that we want people to focus on their families and their welfare – to take care of themselves, and their immediate friends and family. Football and netball will be there when they’re ready, and once we get the opportunity to come back we’ll do everything in our power to support our clubs and our communities. At the moment though, we just want everyone to be safe, well, and healthy.”