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Season Saviour - Stadiums Amongst A Pandemic

Thursday 26, Nov 2020

Metricon Stadium would end up hosting a total of 44 games in the 2020 AFL Premiership season, 42 of those coming in a 14-week stretch between 13 June and 20 September.  Pictured is the ground ahead of the semi-final between Richmond and St Kilda, its final match of the season.

When the AFL announced in early July that it was moving the 2020 Premiership season interstate due to Melbourne’s COVID-19 crisis, it necessitated huge change for all facets of the competition, in particular the scheduling of games.  After hosting 10 games in 2019, Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast became the competition’s primary venue, hosting a remarkable 44 games by the season’s end.  Together with The Gabba, the two Queensland venues bore the brunt of a constantly evolving fixture and in doing so effectively saved the AFL season. ATM editor Brett Robinson catches up with Metricon’s Kerry Betihavas to look back on an unforgettable season and sees how traditional venues, the MCG and Marvel Stadium, weathered a COVID- ravaged winter by comparison.

Adaptability.  It’s a hallmark that every professional sports turf manager must possess, one that inherently comes with the territory.  Kerry Betihavas knows all about the importance of rolling with the punches, especially having just experienced what has without question been one of the most unique footy seasons in a turf management career that has spanned some 20 years. 

It has been an eventful journey for the rugby-mad New South Welshman since landing on the Gold Coast from Sydney in November 2017.  Having spent the previous 12 years working at the Sydney Cricket Ground under Tom Parker, Betihavas was primed to take the reins of his own facility.

He landed at Metricon just as the venue began its transformation for the 2018 Commonwealth Games and after that was part of the massive project to resurface the entire ground. Later that year Metricon welcomed cricket for the first time with the introduction of drop-in wickets to host Big Bash League (BBL) cricket. Add to that the often fickle nature of the Gold Coast climate and Betihavas has definitely earned his crust since taking over, but nothing could quite prepare him for what was about to transpire this football season.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia in March it forced irrevocable change in all facets of work and personal life, with the turf management and sports industries hit hard. For the country’s major sporting competitions like the AFL and NRL, the upheaval of their seasons was a dramatic manifestation of COVID-19’s all-encompassing impact and non- discriminatory nature.

For the AFL, headquartered in Melbourne, it was particularly devastating. Having initially suspended the season for an 11-week period between March and June after just one round had been played, Melbourne’s second COVID- 19 wave and eventual Stage 4 lockdown forced the AFL to make the unprecedented call to move the season interstate. 

It was a mammoth undertaking on so many levels and in a hastily revised and constantly evolving fixture, Brisbane’s The Gabba and Metricon effectively became the Queensland equivalent of the MCG and Marvel Stadium.  Between them, the two venues hosted 79 premiership games (73 home and away games in 18 rounds and six finals, including the Grand Final), almost half of the season’s 162 total games.  And the majority of those were played in just a four month period. 

Compare that to the MCG and Marvel.  Last season the MCG notched up 50 games and Marvel 44.  This season Melbourne’s premier venues stood idle as COVID crippled the city, the MCG hosting just nine games and Marvel 11.  From the 17 venues the AFL used across 2019, in 2020 that dropped to just 12.  Continuing the theme of Queensland grounds stepping up in 2020, Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns also hosted four late season games in the space of 18 days.  By comparison, it took Cazaly’s the four previous seasons (2015- 2018) to record as many premiership matches.  2020 was indeed one for the record books.

THE START OF THINGS TO COME

Even before the AFL season landed on Metricon’s doorstep, Betihavas and his team comprising assistant Ben Greenaway and Brandon Coles were already in the thick of it. As he jests, Metricon was probably the busiest stadium in the country in 2020 and he probably isn’t too far off the truth.

After a second successful season of BBL, in which it hosted three games including a New Year’s Day clash which drew its biggest cricket crowd of 20,135, Metricon hosted three 50-over Australia A v England A games in early February. England collected the first two games before the third was abandoned after the Gold Coast was hit by a deluge of rain. That rain – nearly 600mm over a couple of days – coincided with Betihavas needing to remove two wicket trays in order to get the ground up nine days later for its inaugural Suns AFLW match.

Seven days after the AFLW game, on 22 February the ground hosted a double- header – the first AFLW QClash and a Marsh Community Series AFL preseason match.  As soon as the final whistle had blown, Betihavas and his crew dropped the posts in readiness for Queen on 29 February. That set up saw the entire arena surface (all 22,000m2) covered in flooring to accommodate what would be a sell out 42,000-strong crowd. 

It was around this time that the looming threat of COVID-19 was well and truly spreading throughout the national consciousness. Australia had recorded its first case on 25 January and a few days later the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared it a ‘global health emergency of international concern’. By 11 March, with over 100 countries having registered infections, eight days out from the start of the 2020 AFL Premiership season, the WHO declared COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’. 

As major events in Australia started being called off, late that Friday (13 March) the AFL announced it intended to proceed with the start of the 2020 season, albeit with no crowds. Indeed, it was an eerie sight watching a vacant MCG hosting the traditional season opener between Richmond and Carlton.

For Betihavas and his team it was an equally strange way to kick off the season. The Suns entertained Port Adelaide in an empty stadium and under strict COVID protocols that the AFL had swiftly introduced. As they are employed by the Gold Coast Suns Football Club, the crew had to remain segregated from all Suns admin, coaching and playing staff, while PPE (masks and gloves) became mandatory. Temperature checks and COVID tests also became part of daily and weekly rituals (and would remain in place all season), while on game day they had to be off the ground much earlier and weren’t allowed on to divot until all players were off the ground.

Then came the announcement that everyone had feared. Just minutes after the opening round Hawthorn v Brisbane match had wrapped up at the MCG, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan announced that the AFL Commission was suspending the competition until 31 May (that date would be later revised to 11 June). At the time McLachlan called it “the most serious threat to our game in 100 years” and in the days that followed the AFL and clubs would make drastic cuts as the game stared its worst financial crisis in the face.

Like many across the turf industry, Betihavas and his crew felt the full impact as the country plunged into its first lockdown a few days later. Seventy five percent of staff at the Suns were stood down or forced to take leave. Betihavas lost a casual staff member, while Greenaway and Coles dropped to two days a week, alternating their shifts between Monday and Thursday and taking annual leave the rest of the time. Betihavas himself already had four weeks’ leave planned, so he effectively extended that to eight weeks
until a season restart was confirmed. Budgets were also cut which necessitated some quick rethinking and how cultural practices would be managed.

“We have a total of 15 hectares that we look after here, so we had to prioritise,” says Betihavas. “The stadium and the adjacent training field were only cut twice a week (18mm cutting heights were retained) and we only cut the wicket trays once a week.
We normally aerate with solid tines every two weeks, but we dropped that back to every four weeks. Every four weeks we applied Primo to reduce clippings and in that tank mix we also included a light liquid fertiliser. We didn’t want to overfeed the couchgrass too much and
as there was no traffic on it the grass wasn’t asking for much anyway.

“The big unknown was whether the season would come back at all and whether we would oversow. In a normal year we oversow with ryegrass in the first week of May, but because we didn’t know what football we were having we were in two minds. We ended up biting the bullet and put out a real low rate (100kg/ha) on 14 May. In hindsight we probably should have put more out given all the games we ended up having, but at that point we just didn’t know. Everything kept changing so quickly.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 22.5 of the Australian Turfgrass Management Journal. 

CLICK HERE to read the full article.