A-League 'in operational and learning mode' due to bushfires
While Australian football's summer scheduling has long had to contend with extreme heat, the bushfires currently gripping the nation has forced organisers to rapidly come to terms with a new threat posed by smoke-driven hazardous air quality.
Smoke has repeatedly buffeted Australia's major cities since the blazes began, with capital city Canberra recording the worst air quality in the world for several consecutive days.
A 2:00 pm recording of Canberra's air quality index (AQI) on New Year's Day read 4,650. Any AQI reading over the 150-200 range is considered hazardous.
The unprecedented situation has forced those in charge of Australia's A-League, W-League and Y-League (the A-League's youth competition) to rapidly formulate a response to ensure player, fan and official safety -- a response that is being watched with great interest around the world.
"We haven't spent a lot of time in strategy mode around bushfires and air quality," Head of Leagues Greg O'Rourke told ESPN. "But we have spent a considerable amount of time in operational mode and learning mode over the last four weeks.
"We're now actually having interest from other leagues. For instance, Major League Soccer [MLS] has reached out to us in the last couple of days, to help them build AQI policies."
Though no A-League games have yet been cancelled because of smoke, a Y-League game between Central Coast Mariners and the Newcastle Jets originally earmarked for December 7 was rescheduled, while games between Canberra United and Sydney FC in the W-League and Canberra and Newcastle in the Y-League originally scheduled for January 5 were postponed on January 3 in the wake of extremely hazardous air quality forecasts.
"We've already cancelled matches," O'Rourke said. "Last Friday we cancelled a W-League and a Y-League game that was scheduled. They were both done based on the forecast and the forecast not only turned out to be true - but turned out to be even worse.
"And we've documented all our decision making, documented the forecasts, documented the snapshots of what was the AQI at the points of time that we made the decision to cancel. What was the forecast and what was the actual AQI at what would have been the kick-off [had the decision been made not to cancel]?
"All those things we're taking into account to build our knowledge and build our own processes as we have clearly with heat and Wet Bulb Globe Temperatures."
MLS' interest in how Australian football is coping with the smoke from the blazes is not surprising.
A week after Zlatan Ibrahimovic complained of poor air quality during the Western Conference semifinal between LAFC and LA Galaxy, MLS officials, in the wake of the Getty wildfire that burned in Los Angeles were forced to monitor AQI readings ahead of the Western Conference final between LAFC and Seattle Sounders at Banc of California Stadium.
In August of 2018, a game between Portland Thorns and Sky Blue FC in the National Women's Soccer League went ahead despite poor air quality created by a wildfire near Providence Park.