Australia’s hugely popular Aussie Rules season has kicked off in front of 100,000 empty seats on “the most remarkable, weird and eerie night in recent sporting memory”.
Despite major competitions scrapped around the world to counter the threat of coronavirus, the Australian Football League (AFL) opted to press on without crowds after the government banned outdoor public gatherings of more than 500 people.
On any other day, the season-opening game between Richmond and Carlton would see up to 90,000 fans cram into the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground.
When Richmond won the Grand Final last year, 100,014 were there to witness it.
But on Thursday evening, there were just 27 essential staff in the stands of one of the world’s biggest stadiums to see the home team win 105-81, the AFL said.
Writing on the sport’s official website, reporter Mitch Cleary, who was inside the MCG, said it was the strangest match he had witnessed, calling it “the most remarkable, weird and eerie night in recent sporting memory”.
“Everywhere you turned it was tumbleweeds. Not even the famous MCG seagulls decided to rock up,” he added.
Rugby league and football have also chosen to continue in empty grounds, but other major sporting codes in Australia have cancelled or suspended their activities including cricket, rugby union and basketball.
Australian Rules, a dynamic game similar to Ireland’s Gaelic football, is ordinarily the country’s biggest spectator sport and the AFL tweeted before the game: “Wish you were here.”
Officials have said pushing ahead with the season could play a crucial role in lifting spirits during the virus crisis. And many fans were happy to see the game kick off, although some were less enthused.
“Not in our usual seats but the boys (players) are exactly where they’re supposed to be,” tweeted one, but another complained: “Underestimated how much less enjoyable it would be with no fan atmosphere.”
– ‘Disgraceful example’ –
Kelli Underwood, who was reporting from the boundary for broadcaster Fox Sports, called the night “absolutely fascinating”.
“You’re hearing things you’ve never heard before,” she said.
“I can hear cars driving past, there was a beep at one point, the hollering and the yelling -– you can actually hear everything that’s being said out there on the field.”
Players tackled just as hard and still celebrated with high fives and hugs, which drew some criticism given social distancing measures have been encouraged by the government.
But Richmond defender David Astbury claimed there had been no specific directive from the AFL to avoid unnecessary touching.
“It’s probably a habit, but at the end of the day we were playing a contact sport and touching everyone anyway,” he told reporters.
Players were also seen sharing communal water bottles during breaks, prompting one doctor to tweet: “Can someone please educate afl players on the safe use of water bottles- disgraceful example to community & kids!”
The National Rugby League (NRL) played the opening match of its season in front of fans last weekend, with Thursday’s clash between the Canterbury Bulldogs and North Queensland Cowboys in Sydney the first without spectators.
Canterbury lock Adam Elliott said it was an odd experience.
“A lot of the boys have come through the under-20s system where you are used to playing in big stadiums with no one in them, so it’s a bit of a throwback to that but I probably noticed it most after the game,” he said.
“The game sort of finished and the adrenaline left the body. It was an empty feeling losing the game — and an empty stadium.”