The longer the Australian Open is delayed the better, says a leading sports economics academic who cites the likelihood of fewer crowd restrictions as a key benefit should the tournament be pushed back.
Planning for the year’s first grand slam has been shrouded in Covid uncertainty as Victorian premier Daniel Andrews continues a hard-line approach to quarantine that has polarised the world’s top players including the men’s world No 1 and No 2, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
The initial start date of 18 January appears less likely with each day of urgent talks between Tennis Australia and the Victorian government. The state will resume international arrivals from 7 December but prevent international players arriving in Melbourne until the start of January, so as not to overload the hotel quarantine system.
Reports regarding a new start date range from anywhere between late January and March, with somewhat differing economic consequences accompanying each scenario.
Dr Ross Booth, senior lecturer in sports economics at Monash University, said the possibility of bigger crowds further down the line would provide the state with a much-needed boost and warranted a postponement.
“The later the better, there’s plenty of time,” Dr Booth told Guardian Australia. “There’s nothing really it’s going to clash with. The Test cricket will be over by 19 January.
“I think they could fit it in … Even if they began at the start of March, all that would be over by the time the AFL and Formula One started [both 18 March]. I don’t know whether by 18 March there’ll be any overseas visitors allowed into Australia past New Zealand, but if they were, that would help both the Australian Open and the Formula One. They kind of complement one another – you could have them back to back.
“Yes, school holidays are over, but the later it is in the year, the bigger crowds you’d expect to be able to come … rather than having every fourth seat.”
A later start, Dr Booth said, would also allow proper time for warm-up tournaments, a number of which had been slated to shift to Victoria from other states but now appear in doubt altogether.
Dr Mark Stewart, a sports economist from RMIT University, agreed crowds were a major factor and expressed concern about the potential repercussions for the Victorian economy of moving such a big event outside the school holidays.
“The benefit to a regional economy comes from getting people to come and stay overnight … if it’s moved out of school holidays that’s a major problem because people won’t necessarily come,” Dr Stewart said.
“And the fact that you’ll have a limited number of people there – they’re only allowing 25% of people into the MCG – and they get a lot of money from the gate. They’ll also have to employ heaps more security people to manage them [spectators]. They’ll be paying for all the tests as well, for players and officials etc.
“It’s certainly going to be much less of a boom for the Australian economy in total because you’ll take out a large number of international tourists. If they only have limited crowds – they won’t be allowed to have full stadiums we presume at this point, so that reduces the number of people who can go along.”
A report on Monday suggested the three-round qualification tournament preceding the Open could be scrapped to ensure it is only delayed one week, in part to squeeze some of the tournament proper into school holiday dates and in part to appease broadcaster Nine.
As TA boss Craig Tiley attempts to convince the Victorian government the tournament can be run safely in Melbourne, the exact nature of biosecurity requirements remains unclear, with no guarantee players would be allowed to play lead-up tournaments or even train while in quarantine.
Nadal on Sunday said players should be “patient and accept the situation”, while Djokovic last week said he hoped to be allowed to play before the Open began.
“We need to be flexible to understand the situation and to find a way to play as many tournaments as possible next year,” Nadal said at the ATP World Tour Finals in London.
Australian John Millman, last month elected to the ATP Tour Player Council, felt competing would be impossible with no special dispensation to train while in self-isolation.
“Gauging the temperature among the players, if we were to sit in a hotel room for two weeks and then go out and play, you just can’t do it,” Millman said.
Andrews on Monday said talks were ongoing and “when we’re ready to make announcements we will”.
“We want it go ahead but it has to go ahead safely and, as you would appreciate, we’re talking about 1,000-1,500 people coming here and having to quarantine,” Andrews said. “You’ve got to protect the integrity of the event.”