NRL braces for empty stadiums, fan separation over coronavirus threat

Fans could be isolated in different parts of stadiums – and even locked out altogether – under contingency plans being developed by the NRL as it braces for the coronavirus outbreak to spread further.

The governing body is leaving nothing to chance with its risk minimisation strategy for the global health crisis, and will rely on the federal government to decide whether NRL matches are played in empty or sparsely populated venues.

The NRL is planning ahead to combat the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.Credit:AAP

The NRL and AFL have been in daily contact with both state and federal health authorities and will refer a decision on whether matches go ahead to Canberra's lawmakers.

NRL officials have discussed the possibility of separating supporters in different pockets of the ground if numbers are restricted. Another scenario would be matches played in front of empty grandstands.

The potential financial fallout for all 16 clubs of a restriction or ban on spectators would be varying, but high-drawing clubs such as the Broncos and Eels would be expected to suffer a loss in gate takings.

Other clubs with smaller attendances wouldn't be as adversely affected and the NRL has been analysing the fiscal impact of a major downturn in crowd numbers.

Organisers are still expecting a near sellout to flock to Bankwest Stadium to launch the 2020 season between two old western Sydney rivals.

But it's the coming weeks and months which the NRL already has an eye on.

Broadcasters, which could even generate a small spike in viewing numbers with crowd control, are nervous about the possibility of further travel restrictions being in place during the winter flu season.

The nightmare scenario would be for matches not to go ahead if there's a major escalation in the coronavirus threat, a scenario which still seems very unlikely at this stage despite NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard warning the virus was "unlikely" to be contained.

We are not jumping to any conclusions just yet, but of course we are mindful of the problems that might exist

All 16 NRL teams will converge on Brisbane in early May for this year's Magic Round, the inaugural version of which last season was dubbed a huge success.

"We will put plans in place," NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg said of the coronavirus threat. "We are not jumping to any conclusions just yet, but of course we are mindful of the problems that might exist."

Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V'landys told News Corp on Friday: "What happens if everything shuts down and fans can't go to the ground? How are we going to pay for all these things?"

The NRL has created a working group led by chief medical officer Paul Bloomfield to analyse coronavirus outbreak trends and how to deal with them.

Several clubs contacted by The Sydney Morning Herald on Friday said they were refining hygiene practices including around the use of towels and drink bottles during field and gym training.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced Serie A matches in Italy to be postponed and played in front of no fans for a month, the cancellation of the Shanghai Formula One GP and the AFL match between St Kilda and Port Adelaide in China to be brought back to Melbourne.

The International Olympic Committee has told athletes to prepare as if the Tokyo Games will go ahead as normal in July despite more than 360 people contracting the virus in Japan.

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