The political diplomacy that will soon lead to Melbourne relinquishing its lifelong hold on the AFL grand final is the last domino to fall, which is only subtly masking the less tactful negotiations well underway to choose a one-time alternative to the MCG.
Although the lobbying between four states in their various forms has already begun, league chief Gillon McLachlan is expected to launch an official tender process once the Victoria government formalises the reality that it cannot hope to host a major event with crowds in October.
Last year’s qualifying final at the Gabba between the Brisbane Lions and Richmond.Credit:Getty Images
AFL chairman Richard Goyder has proved a remote and shadowy figure since the COVID-19 outbreak who has failed to show any form of public leadership for the game during its darkest hour. He might be McLachlan's strongest supporter privately but publicly he has provided next to none.
Goyder's failure to do the heavy lifting – reflected even in the AFL's semi-regular presidential hook-ups – is mirrored coincidentally by his home city. It is also reflected in the fact that McLachlan has more power than any previous CEO given the relatively inactive AFL Commission during the pandemic.
Given that his football lieutenant Steve Hocking has taken a public back seat only underlines McLachlan's influence in dictating the placement and look of what looms as a historically highly unusual finals series.
It is difficult to envisage how Perth's Optus Stadium could lay any claim to hosting the 2020 grand final given how low the national game has been on Premier Mark McGowan’s list of priorities and how tough he has made fixturing for the AFL.
AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder.Credit:Getty Images
The West Australian government's job in keeping the state healthy is commendable but that should not be a consideration for McLachlan as he decides the grand final venue. Optus Stadium is more than worthy of the game and clearly in another stratosphere in comparison with the Gabba, and Western Australia is a great football state, but that does not change Perth's logistical challenges.
Things change quickly but how the AFL could even consider a grand final in WA when the state cannot yet guarantee it would lift its border restrictions to allow West Coast to host a final of any description defies logic.
The state of relationships with premiers should not decide major events but smooth sailing has also not marked McLachlan's dealing with his home state and Premier Steve Marshall. Even Port Adelaide seems accepting of a Brisbane grand final while making a strong case for the Adelaide Oval should it win the right to a home preliminary final or early play-offs.
Port bosses have pointed to their exemplary attitude and behaviour during the troubled early hub days back in June, the relative ease of flying opposition teams into Adelaide for finals, the quality of their venue and loyalty of their supporters and ultimately the fact that their club should not be stripped of home finals just because circumstances dictate other clubs will be.
If you had to rank the grand final contenders, Brisbane and the Gabba are clear leaders to stage the game at night on October 17 or – at the latest – October 24. Sydney's Homebush remains COVID-19 contingent but still the second choice, with Adelaide Oval third and Optus Stadium in Perth fourth.
AFL legend and Brisbane Lions director Leigh Matthews still – in something of a twist – believes a football state and not Queensland should host the game, but you can argue that Queensland has earned its stripes this year in that regard. And the size of the government financial package speaks volumes but the long-term economic and social benefits of the Gabba outweigh short-term financial deals and McLachlan is acutely aware of that. Particularly when that stadium is crying out for a redevelopment and the Lions sit $5 million-$6 million short on funds for their new training facility.
The next bus to Queensland is due to leave Melbourne at the very start of September and you'd expect McLachlan – along with Gary Ablett and Shane Edwards among a final group including broadcast and other media and more football staff – to be aboard to then enter the next wave of soft quarantiners at the Gold Coast's Carrara Mercure.
By then Victoria and its great event will have officially parted company for one dreadful year. No grand final, no parade, no public holiday and no Brownlow Medal (that is slated for southern Queensland on the eve of the finals).
The historic agreement that secured at the MCG until 2057 in 2018 in a three-way deal with the Victorian government, the AFL and the MCG is estimated to be worth $500 million and also signalled a complete rebuild of the Great Southern Stand, probably within the next decade.
The sports package unveiled by Premier Daniel Andrews in April that year included a $225 million investment in the Docklands precinct and Marvel Stadium along with a revamp of other key facilities across the state with a strong focus on women's football including Ballarat's Mars Stadium, Princes Park, the Whitten Oval and Moorabbin.
It underlined Victoria as the home of football for decades and led to a backlash from clubs outside football's VFL heartland, which had not been briefed before the deal was struck. Those clubs have continued to rail at the unfair advantage enjoyed by Victorian teams and particularly those that play home games at the MCG.
But even they don't seem keen to wallow in Victoria's precarious state of affairs. That the show must go on has never as a cliche stood truer. And McLachlan and his team, and the clubs and their players, and members and the game's broadcasters have done a mighty job in keeping that show on the road. And so, too, the Queensland government.
But an empty MCG on grand final day and the empty Melbourne streets that will surround it? It leaves you with a hollow feeling.
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