Most Americans are familiar with a football field shaped like a rectangle that runs 100 yards in length. It has two end zones and a forked goal post at each end. The rules of this sport are also very well known. But what happens when the field suddenly changes into an oval, the length and width increase, and the goal posts double and crossbars fall away? Say hello to Australian rules football.
No, it’s not rugby. The sport, also known as footy, has been played in Australia since the mid-1800s and predates many other modern forms of football.
“It combines the kicking and goal scoring of soccer, with the running, catching and tackling of football, and the jumping and quick hands of basketball,” says Doren James, operations manager of the United States Australian Football League. The USAFL, which was founded in 1997, works to further develop Australian football in the U.S., as well as encourage more participation. Currently, there are 37 men’s teams and 10 women’s teams located in most major cities across the country, and the organization is eager to grow those figures.
“The sport continues to grow with new clubs starting each year,” says James. “We offer a number of exciting, unique opportunities for interested athletes.” For example, top high school players can represent the league during a month-long stint in Australia with the World XVIII team. The sport has gained recognition thanks to the success of the men’s and women’s national representative teams, which finished fourth and third, respectively, at the 2011 International Cup. The USAFL has also hosted two AFL combines with athletes in Australia competing for professional roster slots. James says the organization also expects more growth in its women’s and recreational leagues.
Even with the growth seen in the U.S., there are still challenges finding adequate facilities to host everyday games and major tournaments. “The biggest challenge in finding venues is flat open space to set up our fields,” James says. “Some soccer parks work great, but others don’t because of trees, bleachers and other permanent obstructions.” Australian football is played on a cricket oval, with the average field measuring 180 yards long and 120 yards wide—big enough to cover two to three soccer fields.
As one can imagine, there are not many cricket ovals in America, as it is not commonly played here. This has forced the USAFL to find alternatives, such as polo grounds, to hold their events. At the same time, the lack of venues offers opportunities for cities. Building multipurpose outdoor spaces will help regions eager to attract new sports events, and a wide variety of diverse sports apart from Australian Football can benefit.
“When talking to cities and other event planners, I’ve found that there is a growing demand for open field space among other sports such as Irish hurling, lacrosse, cricket and others,” says James. He goes on to say that a number of cities have expressed the desire to develop new facilities that meet the demands of these sports and many already have plans in motion.
“A versatile sports complex with a quality playing surface will attract our events as well as other sports,” James says.
Australian rules football is just starting to gain its footing in the U.S. and more growth is seen down the road. With some small alterations to field space and venues, cities across the country can get in on all the footy action.
−By Vanessa Day