It’s March 22, 2020. North Melbourne has just defeated St Kilda at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, concluding the seventh of nine games in round one of the 2020 AFL season.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan is about to hold a press conference to address the AFL’s response to the rapidly developing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Today, after a meeting with the AFL commission, the AFL has moved to immediately suspend the 2020 Toyota AFL Premiership Season at the conclusion of this weekend’s matches,” he said.
With these words, a cloud of immense uncertainty is placed not only over the remainder of the season, but the livelihoods of many in the AFL industry also.
Michael Willson, the chief photographer at AFL Media, is at Marvel Stadium shooting the press conference, but is among those facing immediate employment uncertainty.
“At the end of the match, instead of filing my normal match-day pictures, I ended up shooting a press conference basically saying that the season was on hold, which didn’t bode well for my job,” he says.
Willson was stood down the following week, alongside 80 per cent of staff at the AFL.
However, as with many who were stood down, opportunities to return to work arose upon the resumption of the AFL season in June.
Heightening COVID-19 concerns in Victoria and New South Wales in late July again forced the season to shift North.
From then, Queensland became home to the 2020 AFL season, most of the league’s teams, as well as AFL staff, relocating into COVID-safe ‘hubs’ to allow the season to continue safely.
Willson, along with AFL Media journalist Cal Twomey, was located on the Gold Coast, experiencing ‘hub life’ for much of the season.
The key protocols within the hubs applied to both players and staff, they explained, entailing weekly COVID-19 testing, among multiple other restrictions.
Twomey outlined that while certain restrictions allowed hub residents to go to the beach, cafes and shops – albeit with strict guidelines – there was still a high sense of responsibility to comply with the protocols.
“I didn’t want to risk it at all,” he says.
“My philosophy was that I was up here to cover the game… and I didn’t want to be the person who was lax with the protocols and stuffed something up.”
Willson, whose role as a photographer revolves heavily around match-day, also recounted that their personal hygiene and safety was a priority.
This, he explained, involved a complete ban on entering team changerooms, as well as extra caution and urgency when shooting from the grandstand and on the ground.
“I was really wary of coming into close contact with the players, given the amount of sweat that was coming off them,” he laughs.
The concept of the hub was not exclusive to the AFL, however.
The international cricket Summer in England also operated using a similar – though perhaps more stringent – model.
One of the reasons for this was a smaller and more concentrated ‘bubble’ limited solely to the venue of the games.
Australian cricket writer and commentator Adam Collins, who covered the England vs Australia limited-overs series from within the bubble, echoed Twomey’s philosophy, saying the idea that anyone could be the ‘reason why the whole international summer comes a cropper’ was front of mind.
“There was the expectation that you all had to play your role,” he explains.
“Everybody had a role to play to make sure the English summer went off without a hitch.”
“The ECB’s international programme recorded a loss of somewhere in the order of 100 million pounds (181.5 million AUD). Imagine what that could’ve been if they’d lost the international programme due to someone being irresponsible.”
Collins also explained that members of the bubble were required to wear their accreditation – which contained a GPS tracker – everywhere, alongside a wristband which signified that a temperature check had been conducted.
“If you weren’t wearing the bracelet and badge, and didn’t have your GPS, you’d be in a lot of trouble,” he recalls.
Between them, The Rose Bowl in Southampton and Old Trafford in Manchester hosted all 18 matches of the men’s English summer, both venues containing a hotel which hosted the bubble in its entirety.
This made for a unique experience that was of its time, according to Collins.
“Directly above my room was David Warner. So, I was talking to him, not the way I normally would in a hotel lobby or on the field before play. It was more like, ‘oh, how are you going mate?’” he recalls through the Zoom screen, twisting his body around, gesturing and looking towards the ceiling.
“At one point I saw Marnus Labuschagne, Riley Meredith and Josh Hazlewood gathered on the balcony of one of their bedrooms watching the game. These rostered off Australian players were the only spectators in the ground.”
Collins, Twomey and Willson all shared a similar gratitude when discussing their time in the hubs and bubbles.
“I don’t think anyone wants to be in a situation like that again, but it was a privilege knowing that we were part of a machine that somehow got onto the tracks against all expectations,” Collins reflects.
“The broadcast media is certainly a big part for those at home. To have been those eyes and ears when people were effectively shut out of the game was a privilege.”
Twomey outlined that the situation’s uniqueness was one of the more memorable aspects of the experience, albeit one which he hopes will never have to happen again.
“I think there’s going to be a real level of curiosity about what it was actually like being in one of these hubs,” he says.
“So I feel very lucky and privileged to have actually spent some time in there.”
Willson enjoyed the sense of unity within the hub, attributing this to the AFL’s organisation and effort to allow the season to take place.
“It was a real team environment, everyone knew that we had to band together to get the season completed, so it was a good experience,” he says.
“At the end of the day, the Grand Final was played, and that was mainly due to the hubs and the environment that the AFL set up for the players.”
Collins likewise declared that the success of the bubble could be credited to the sense of collectivism.
“When the history of this period is written, it’ll be to the immense credit of a lot of people working together to somehow make it happen.”