Australian sports leagues face coronavirus fallout

SYDNEY (AP) — Australia's major football codes have begun to bow to the inevitable and suspend competitions in the face of increasingly stringent restrictions on travel and social contact due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The uniquely Australian sport of Australian Rules football on Sunday shut down its Australian Football League until May 31 as federal and state governments imposed stringent restrictions on travel and public gatherings.

The first round of the AFL season was still in progress when league chief executive Gillon McLachlan announced the suspension.

Sunday began with Australia prime minister Scott Morrison announcing in an address to the nation his government's recommendation that all non-essential travel over long distances or between states should cease.

Morrison still threw a lifeline to the AFL, the National Rugby League and soccer's A-League, saying sport should not necessary have to immediately cease.

"I would say it's not the end of sport," Morrison said. "We will work closely with them about those arrangements.

"In terms of the NRL and the AFL and those types of arrangements I think the principle is important.

"I'm sure we can work with both of those agencies, with their respective states and chief medical officers at a federal level. If there are new arrangements that need to be put in place to protect the health and safety of everyone they may be possible. But I'm not going to pre-empt those outcomes."

But the New South Wales and Victoria state governments began Sunday to impose restrictions on non-essential gatherings and the AFL, based in Victoria state, accepted the inevitable. The AFL was suspended and the AFL women's league canceled for 2020.

"We will review the situation by the end of April to determine whether a further suspension period would be required," McLachlan said. "The decision by various state governments to close their borders, travel bans and other measures meant it was time for the AFL to immediately stop the AFLW and AFL competitions."

The NRL and A-League are expected to follow suit as increasingly strict measures by state and federal legislatures make sporting competitions untenable.

As leagues around the world closed down in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Australia became a lonely outpost in which professional football competitions continued, if only in empty stadiums.

While spectators were excluded, television cameras in echoing stadiums continued to train themselves on the National Rugby League, soccer's A-League and the Australian Football League, the major league in Australian Rules Football.

The presence of television offered a financial lifeline for those sports, a continuing trickle of rights payments which could keep the sports solvent as the virus altered normal daily life.

The NRL is in the middle of the second round of its season and is now under increasing pressure to announce a suspension. Australian Rugby League commission president Peter V'Landys said rugby league would consider every possible means to continue.

"If you listen to a lot of the rumors it is going to be a challenge moving forward," V'landys told Triple M radio. "Potential lockdowns in NSW and Victoria has been mentioned, suburbs being locked down has also been out there.

"This changes hourly and decisions we make today could change tomorrow. Tonight is a vital meeting (of the New South Wales state cabinet) for us moving forward."

The NRL had chartered a plane to move teams around the country, lessening the chance of players being exposed to the virus among regular travelers. But that may no longer be enough.

Football Federation Australia said it would await the outcome of a meeting of the federal cabinet Sunday night before deciding whether to postpone the A-League season.

The FFA said it would provide an update Monday when two matches are scheduled, between Newcastle and Melbourne City and Perth and Western Sydney.

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