MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Passionate crowds at sports events are part of the fabric of life in Australia but stringent measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus will mean few cheers at the nation’s stadiums in coming weeks.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged people to avoid gathering in groups of more than 500 on Friday, just five days after 86,000 packed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the Women’s Twenty20 World Cup final, a record for a women’s sporting event in the country.
His advice came hours after Formula One’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix was cancelled abruptly at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit after a McLaren team member tested positive to the virus.
More than 134,500 people have been infected globally and over 4,900 have died, according to a Reuters tally of government announcements. Australia had recorded more than 200 infections on Friday, with three deaths.
Morrison said his government would officially issue the crowd advice from Monday, but a number of sports moved quickly to get ahead of the curve.
Cricket Australia on Friday said it had banned fans from the upcoming one-day international cricket series against New Zealand in Sydney and Hobart.
The country’s top flight National Basketball League (NBL) said it would play the remainder of its championship series in closed stadiums and immediately suspend it if any infections came to light.
Australia’s four teams in the sprawling Super Rugby competition, which includes sides from across the southern hemisphere and Japan, will no longer allow fans to attend home games after this weekend.
“This is a position that no one in our game wanted to be in, but we have made this decision in line with the government response to this ongoing global health issue,” Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle said.
Swimming Australia went a step further, scrapping national championships in Perth next month altogether.
The National Rugby League will welcome fans, including Morrison, at the weekend’s opening round of games before shutting them out subsequently.
NRL CEO Todd Greenberg said the fan ban would have “significant financial impacts on all 16 clubs and the game.”
“We’re in unprecedented times. If they’re in financial difficulty we’ll keep them afloat,” he added.
“We’ll get through this together.”
The Australian Football League (AFL), governing body for the nation’s professional Australian Rules football competition, is also bracing for a big financial hit less than a week before the championship season kicks off.
The indigenous game is hugely popular in the country’s southern states and drew an average crowd of more than 35,000 in the 2019 season.
The AFL confirmed on Friday it had barred fans from matches.
The AFL’s 13-times champions, Hawthorn Hawks, said the coronavirus would mean a 10% hit to their 2020 revenue in the “best scenario”.
“This is before the AFL informs us of any curtailing of the AFL season, so clearly this is serious,” Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett said.
Up until Friday, Australian health authorities had said fans were free to “go to the footy” and live their lives as normal, a stance that confounded many medical professionals amid a growing tally of infections across the country.
The decision to allow 86,000 to sit cheek by jowl at the MCG on Sunday was seen in a new light after the disclosure that one of the spectators had tested positive for the virus.
Though sports around the world were scrambling to shut down games and close stadiums, CA boss Kevin Roberts said that encouraging fans to go to the T20 final was the right thing to do “based on the information then”.
The match had “inspired the world of women and girls” while giving his sport “a massive springboard”, he said.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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