Those of us who are men and women of a certain age remember ESPN before it came of age.
When the fledgling network went on the air in 1979 it had no rights to major American sporting events, so there were tractor pulls and talk shows to fill up airtime. However, it was the broadcast of Victorian Football League matches that opened up a whole new world for fans like me.
Australian Rules football (now playing under the Australian Football League umbrella after abandoning the VFL brand in 1989) is a wonderful hybrid of American football, Gaelic football, rugby, soccer and bar fight. After being introduced to the game by the “Worldwide Leader In Sports” I remained interested even after ESPN shifted its attention to what United States fans considered more traditional athletic competition.
Still, I often wondered how “footy” might be received if there were clubs not just in places like Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide but New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Philadelphia.
Turns out there’s no need to wonder.
Although currently sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic like many other sports, the United States Australian Football League has been around for 25 years. Introduced in 1996 and featuring amateur clubs from coast to coast, the USAFL helps coordinate men’s, women’s and junior programs across the country.
“2021 will be the USAFL’s 25th season, and we’ve gone from six teams in 1997 to 46 this year from Maine to Hawaii, with a couple in development hoping to join the league in the next few months,” USAFL media manager Brian Barrish said. “In the league’s early days, there were a lot of clubs in the Midwest and in California/Arizona. The upper Midwest is probably the most active, with clubs in Columbus, Cincinnati, Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, Madison/Milwaukee, Minnesota, and Des Moines thriving. The game has also grown in Texas (Austin, Houston, Dallas), and in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle and Portland). Recently, we’re starting to see a big push to get clubs started in the Southeast, which only had three or four clubs for the longest time.
“New teams have sprung up in Savannah, Jacksonville, Tampa, Rome (Georgia), and Richmond, to go with our established clubs in Atlanta, Raleigh, and Ft. Lauderdale.”
At first glance Aussie Rules football seems like organized chaos, but the basic rules of the pro game aren’t that difficult to follow.
The field is a huge oval (between 148 and 202 yards long and 120 to 170 yards wide).
“Finding spaces for us to play has its challenges; essentially you need to find an open space that is big enough for us to build a field that doesn’t have too many holes or baseball diamonds surrounding it,” Barrish said. “I’ve called matches and played on everything from polo grounds to public parks to the infield of a harness track (Rosemont Raceway in Maryland, to be exact). For regular season play, we just set out cones (they call them witch’s hats in Australia) for the field and the squares, and then make posts out of PVC pipes fitted over metal stakes. That last part is a bit of a complication sometimes as some parks don’t like you making holes in their field, even if they’re small and manageable. But, most teams usually have two or three places to play in case of scheduling issues and last-minute issues such as weather.”
Games are contested by teams made up of 18 players per side and a match is divided into four 20-minute quarters.
Four posts are located at each end of the field; a kick between the two taller middle posts scores a goal – worth 6 points – while one that goes between the two outer and shorter posts scores 1 point, known as a behind.
Single points are also scored if a ball goes through any of the posts without being kicked by the attacking team (say it comes off the hands of a player on either team or is kicked by a defender) or if the defense forces the ball between the posts it’s defending.
In terms of advancing the ball, teams do so by kicking or hand-passing, and players with possession of the ball and can run no more than 16 yards while holding it before bouncing it off the ground.
OK, now that I’ve written it down it does look difficult to follow, but if you familiarize yourself with the rules and watch a few matches, it all starts to make sense.
“In terms of players, we have everyone from Aussie ex-pats to Americans who saw the game on TV years ago and wanted to try their hand at it,” Barrish explained. “Recruiting looks very different from club to club, depending on everything from the number of colleges to the bar scene and everything in between. There are a lot of Australians that are over here for work, school, or family. The Americans have come through word of mouth or having seen the game in Australia, among other ways. Just under 75 percent of our players, however, are American. Roughly 25 percent are Australian. And while we haven’t grown in the total number players as much as we would like, the fact that we’ve gone from a mostly ex-pat Australian league to a mostly American program is a big win in my book. Helping this is our rule that at least 50 percent of the players on the field for a USAFL game must be American (or ‘National’ players). This requires teams to actively recruit locally and help grow the game at the grassroots level and not simply ‘import’ Aussies.”
More Americans playing, of course, means more have the chance to excel at the game.
“It’s worth mentioning that we have at least one team – the Des Moines Roosters – that is completely American,” Barrish said. “Ninety percent of our women players are American, which is fantastic for the growth and helpful for growing a pathway to play at the AFLW level, as evidenced by Dani Marshall’s signing with the Western Bulldogs this year.”
Although the formation and function of clubs varies from town to town, a sense of community is a common denominator. The roots of the game and its history help bring the teams and players together.
In addition, the AFL provides the USAFL with a yearly grant that assists in operations.
“We are also in constant communication with them about our development and about promoting the game on both sides of the Pacific,” Barrish said. “The inspiration for club culture comes from the regional Aussie Rules clubs in Australia. Many of the teams were founded by Australians who played in those clubs and wanted to establish them under similar principles to what they had back home. I got the chance to travel with the U.S. teams to Melbourne for the 2017 AFL International Cup, and we were hosted by several local clubs during the two weeks we were there. There were post-training meals, pre-game gatherings, and a real sense of family there. In the mountain town of Montrose, for example, there were people who had been a part of the club in some capacity for 50-plus years, and whose children and grandchildren had grown up playing for the team. We’re talking the equivalent of AA or AAA baseball here, but there is a lot of local pride here.
“What I will say, having been around just about every club in the league, is that each one has a different dynamic. But, it’s all positive, and it’s all about growing something sustainable. We’re not like, say, softball leagues, where we get together once a week, play a game, have a beer and go home. We celebrate Australia Day, we have ANZAC Day commemorations, and many of our clubs have social and fundraising events throughout the year. And it is really like a family, both on the club and at the national level.”
So could there come a day when Aussies Rules clubs develop a pay-for-play model?
“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility,” Barrish said. “The big issue would be finding facilities that could host full-on matches. I know there is talk of someone building a bunch of cricket stadia across the country and that would be a great way to add more events to those facilities. In the absence of that, it would need to be in a smaller format. The AFL tested something called AFLX over the last two years – it was played on soccer fields with modified rules, a la Rugby 7s. Something like that would work for a league or a touring competition here. What that would look like, I don’t know; do you have players at the top of their game coming over to live and play in the States? Do you bring over retired players a la the Big 3 Basketball and mix in American players who have come up through the USAFL, or converted athletes?”
As far as Barrish is concerned, the USAFL remains the best way to showcase a sport that features highly skilled athletes playing a crowd-pleasing game.
“I’m a big believer in the growth of the grass roots effort that the USAFL has laid down over the past quarter of a century,” he said. “It would be great if that got more attention on both sides of the Pacific before anything semi-pro or professional emerged. We need more people, specifically more locals, being involved in the sport in order to be successful, and the focus should be on that first.”
For more information on the league, go to www.usafl.com.