Tip of the iceberg is important, but the AFL can't overlook its base

This week marks what should have been Round 9 of the AFL season, which originally included blockbuster clashes such as Richmond vs. Geelong and Carlton vs. Collingwood. Instead, one crowdless round of football has been possible before the league was shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Oh how Gillon McLachlan and his team at AFL HQ would be wishing they were dealing with the usual in-season spotfires such as Match Review Panel inconsistencies, coach and player outbursts, media spats and other associated controversies which suddenly appear so trivial.

Now, discussions and decisions are exponentially more serious after the league, like most others across the globe, was shutdown, although a resumption could be closer after Monday's news of training restrictions being eased in Victoria.

The AFL is still grappling with the exact timing and structure of a season restart, with hopes it could be back as early as mid-June.

What is obvious though is that the AFL as we know it -- or knew it, more to the point -- will be a distant memory once things kick off again. Fans, media, players, staff, broadcasters and even the league itself must brace for the fact post-COVID AFL will be completely different to what it was before this season.

Financially, the league and many clubs are in perilous shape - although a worst-case scenario of clubs folding has thankfully been avoided. Fat has been and will continue to be trimmed across the board - not players' skinfolds, but the excesses that blighted so many balance sheets across the industry.

Of course, the AFL's decision to throw everything at securing the future of the competition and its 18 teams is the correct one. One thing it must guard against, however, is putting at risk the great strides it has taken in recent years to make the sport more appealing to those outside its traditional markets.

The establishment of the AFLW is case in point, with the women's league largely hailed as a success on a number of different fronts (social media trolls aside), principally giving women the chance to aspire to playing the game at its highest level, and developing a more inclusive environment in such a traditionally male-dominated sport.

While McLachlan has stated the AFL intends to ensure the AFLW continues in the current 14-team format, some are worried it could be collateral damage from the current financial crisis.

"There's a lot of uncertainty whether it (next season) will even happen because the AFL has taken a huge financial hit with this stuff," St Kilda player Tilly Lucas-Rodd told ABC News.

"It is uncertain whether it will happen, how long it will be and what it will look like."

Another area those in the industry fear could be on the way out is international recruits. The AFL's hunt for talent in Ireland has unearthed a several gems including Jim Stynes and Tadhg Kennelly and more recently, Conor McKenna, Zach Tuohy and Pearce Hanley. Mason Cox (U.S.) and Mike Pyke (Canada) also made their mark, their stories bringing a smile to even the most grim-faced fan.

But those days could be over, at least for the foreseeable future. Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley has conceded it's unlikely clubs and the league will have the finances available to recruit players from overseas, and with the likely reduction in football club spending, teams will almost certainly be unable to commit the intense resources needed to develop these players even if they are able to find a way to recruit them.

With list sizes set to be cut as a dramatic cost-saving measure, there are also fears more speculative draft prospects -- who can sometimes deliver incredible results in the right environment, such as Sydney Stack at Richmond last year -- may be overlooked for more dependable options. Hopefully talent in any shape, age or form, can still find a way to feature in the AFL's brave new world, because the game will certainly be poorer without them.

Grassroots footy too, must continue to be nurtured - it would be a grave mistake if the AFL attempted to rebuild its pyramid by concentrating too much on the tip at the top, rather than the much less glamorous, but much more important base.

So while McLachlan and Co. are quite rightly currently concentrating on securing the future of the AFL and its clubs, hopefully they are still able to take a long-term, holistic view of the sport they govern. Because despite the odd misstep, those at AFL HQ have done a fantastic job of opening the sport up to a more diverse range of people -- from players and umpires and staff, to fans at home and at the grounds -- and it would be a shame if that momentum was a sorry afterthought as footy looks to get back on its feet.