AFLW grand final controversy: Adele, AFL and Ashes treated as priorities over Brisbane Lions

Joshua Robertson
Sabrina Frederick-Traub and Kaitlyn Ashmore of the Lions. The team is expected to play to a crowd half the size than if they had played their final at the Gabba. Photograph: Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images

The Brisbane Lions’ hopes of hosting the first AFLW grand final at the Gabba were dashed after the venue manager had already locked in an Adele concert, men’s AFL and Ashes cricket as priorities.

The Lions, whose triumphant season won them the right to host the final this Saturday, are expecting to play to a crowd half the size after being relegated to the Gold Coast, where they will play before the men’s AFL opening round.

In what has been widely viewed as a debacle, the Lions were denied a berth at their home city’s premier AFL venue over safety concerns about new turf laid after damage from an Adele concert on 4 March.

The circumstances around the decision, which prompted a storm of criticism from AFLW fans and administrators, will be reviewed by the Queensland minister for sport, Mick de Brenni.

The Lions’ chief executive, Greg Swann, said the situation was “totally unfair and totally ridiculous” and had robbed the AFLW of “a massive crowd and a real spectacle” at the Gabba.

Swann questioned Stadiums Queensland’s decision to lay new turf “straight after the Adele concerts knowing full well that there was AFL to be played in a matter of weeks”.

“We believe every Queenslander with an interest in sport – and women’s sport in particular – should be angry at this decision,” Swann said.

“Those responsible for managing the field of play should be held accountable for a decision that has denied our women’s team the right to create history in front of our loyal supporters.”

The Gabba’s manager, Blair Conaghan, told the Guardian: Following the Adele concert, our priority was restoring the field to a safe, player-ready surface in the quickest time possible.

“While the Gabba was originally working towards the Brisbane Lions’ first regular AFL season match on 1 April, and planned our turf recovery program around this, our grounds team made every effort to fast-track field readiness, however independent turf consultants determined the field was unable to be in a safe condition to host the AFLW.”

The AFLW first flagged its desire to play a final at the Gabba in mid-February, weeks before the Adele concert on 4 March, which had been approved in November.

Guardian Australia understands Queensland cricket administrators after the concert raised concerns that the Gabba’s cricket pitches may not recover in time for the Ashes series in November if the AFL men’s season went ahead as scheduled.

Conaghan said: “When the Gabba was first approached about the possibility of the AFLW final just a few weeks before the Adele concerts, the AFL was advised that the state of the field post-concert was unknown and the Gabba was unable to commit at that time.

“Once turf protection and staging was removed it was determined that some areas of the wicket block required re-turfing to return them to a safe, playable surface.

“It is not unusual for turf replacement to occur where areas of the playing surface are damaged or identified as a risk to player safety. Failure to do so could have resulted in a hard or slippery surface for players throughout the upcoming AFL season.”

The controversy again raises the issue of pecking order among competing users of Queensland’s major stadiums, months after another lower-profile sport team suffered in the fallout from a big entertainment event.

In December, A-League team Brisbane Roar was forced to play on a Suncorp Stadium pitch that was visibly damaged by a Coldplay concert.

Guardian Australia understands the Lions were alerted about concerns about the state of the Gabba by Queensland cricket administrators in the week after the Adele concert.

They were told that Gabba curator Kevin Mitchell had concerns that anything less than a six-week layoff could put the centre pitches in jeopardy for the Ashes cricket series in November.

The Lions were told that could affect two of their men’s AFL homes games but no mention was made of the AFLW final.

De Brenni said he had been assured around the same time that the Gabba was on track to host the final.

On Monday, after independent testing ruled the centre grass had not taken root enough to stop layers from slipping, de Brenni said: “Gabba staff made an amazing effort to prepare the ground.

“Unfortunately the ground turned out to be few days short of being safe for play.”

Mitchell declined to comment when contacted by Guardian Australia.

A Lions spokesman said: “To say the players were disappointed is an understatement, especially considering multiple families were flying in from around Australia to watch the game”.

But the team had decided to focus on making the most of their first grand final experience, he said. The Lions drew an average of about 5,000 spectators at their regular season home ground of Brendale in Brisbane’s north-west.

With free entry to the grand final, they expected a crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000 at the Gabba, which has a capacity of 42,000.

But with the shift to Gold Coast’s Metricon stadium, which raised travel issues for its Brisbane supporter base, the Lions expect a crowd of up to 10,000.

There will be a three-hour gap between the end of the AFLW final and the kick-off for the men’s Lions opening round clash with the Gold Coast Suns.

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