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Why Australian sports grounds are full and the UK's empty

Why Australian sports grounds are full and the UK's empty
Why Australian sports grounds are full and the UK's empty

Australia and the United Kingdom share a lot many things – common history, cultural traits, a monarch, language, some traditions, and an intense rivalry in all things of sporting nature. Their rivalries in Cricket and Rugby are legendary.

Both Australians and the British love their sports, and more specifically they love to gamble on sports. This fact and the fact that Australians have very few gambling sites when compared to the massive online betting market in the UK.

But there is one area right now where the two countries are poles apart – dealing with the COVID 19 pandemic. With the virus showing no signs of respite, the UK has entered a fresh national lockdown, expected to last for a month or more.

This is in stark contrast to Australia, which had also entered lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic. But unlike the UK, spectators in Australia have been allowed back inside stadia and other sporting venues since June 2020.

Where things stand now in Australian sports

Australian sports entered full lockdown in March 2020, immediately after the Melbourne Grand Prix Formula 1 race and the Women's T20 World Cup Final. But unlike the UK, which was ravaged by COVID 19, the Australian pandemic experience has been less severe.

Once the first wave of the virus showed signs of receding, the government also relaxed the restrictions. In June, grounds were opened to the public, but with restrictions. Only 10,000 spectators were allowed inside venues at this point, subject to strict distancing rules.

Later in September 2020, there were further relaxations, as the cap for spectators was raised from 10,000 to 25% of the venue capacity and then to 50% for indoor venues and 75% for outdoor venues.

In October, over 40,000 fans flocked to the ANZ Stadium in Sydney to watch the National Rugby League Grand Final. Other leagues like the Big Bash (cricket) and AFL (Australia rules football) are also taking place with spectators.

Why is it so different in the UK?

The difference between the two countries in this respect can be narrowed down to one single statistic comparison – Australia has witnessed around 900 fatalities due to COVID-19 so far, while in the UK, that figure is closer to 50,000.

Further, owing to various factors like population density and government action, Australia was able to contain the virus more effectively than the UK. In the latter, the first wave did/has not really receded. With winter approaching, there are fears that the infection rates will soar in England, Scotland and other regions.

In stark contrast, Australia witnessed a lull in COVID-related deaths and infection rates after a few months. This gave the government confidence to open all forms of economic activity, including sports, with reasonable restrictions. The UK government did not have this luxury as it was never able to get on top of that first COVID wave.

How the restrictions are affecting sport in the UK

Ever since the pandemic hit in early 2020, grounds across the UK have remained empty to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The previous editions of major leagues like the Premier League were completed behind closed doors, after extended delays. And this year's competition continues to be held in empty stadia, relying entirely on TV broadcasts for viewership.

As a result, sporting events suffered immensely in the UK, particularly in the football leagues below the Premier League. At the top, big clubs have the protection of TV money – Chelsea spent over £150 million on Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell and Timo Werner, while Manchester City had £100 million just for a pair of defenders in Ruben Diaz and Nathan Ake.

Champions Liverpool spent around £80 million on Diogo Jota, Thiago Alcantara, and Kostas Tsimikas, with the latter marking a return of high-profile Greek signings to English football. But things are dire below the elite level, with many of the smaller clubs facing annihilation due to financial hardships.

Without TV deals and big brand sponsors, teams in the lower divisions rely heavily on other sources – the biggest of them all is ticket revenues from spectators at their small stadia. Thanks to the lockdown, many small clubs have effectively been cut off from their only source of income for most of 2020.

The UK Government has already announced rescue plans for ten different sports. But football is the biggest and most expensive of them all in the UK by a country mile – it requires serious money in the form of bailouts if dozens of smaller teams are to survive beyond next year (the English football pyramid is one of the biggest, with 72 teams in the professional leagues and thousands more in non-league).

Is Australia out of the woods as far as sports are concerned?

Nothing can be taken for granted in the face of this unprecedented global crisis. Australia has fared better than many other nations, but that is no cause for complacency. Infection rates are still active, particularly in urban areas.

Also, the COVID experience has not been uniform across the different Australian states – Victoria accounts for the lion's share of infections and fatalities. And the city of Melbourne also happens to be one of the biggest sporting destinations in the country. When infection rates surged as part of a new wave, the NRL final had to be shifted out of Melbourne.

But despite these setbacks, the state government is working hard to bring back sports to Melbourne. Plans are underfoot to hold the much-anticipated Boxing Day test between Australia and India at the MCG, with reduced crowds. The 2021 Australia Open will also take place as planned, with smaller crowds.

While it is way too soon to declare that Australia has won the battle against COVID, it certainly has done a stellar job. As a result, Australian sport is in a much, much better place than its counterparts in the UK.

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