Aussie Rules overseas: the Americas (2010)

Published: December 19th, 2010 – http://www.theroar.com.au/2010/12/19/aussie-rules-overseas-the-americas/

Having recently written about the Australian football code in the Pacific and possible expansion of the main leagues in Australia, I decided to look into the game further afield for the benefit of the curious. In the first part I’d like to take a look at the game in the Americas, with a particular focus on the United States and Canada.

It should be stressed this article is about presenting information readily available from various sources, it is not about AFL expansions, it is not about dominating over other codes. This article should not be construed as comparing Australian football’s development with other sports.

Canada

Canadians received the then VFL enthusiastically in 1987 with a record overseas crowd of 37,000 in Vancouver for a Melbourne versus Sydney match. A second exhibition match that year between Melbourne and North Melbourne in Vancouver attracted more than 7000 people. This was the first real attempt by the Australian code to showcase the game in North America, and the large Vancouver crowd remains a record for any Australian football match overseas.

The Canadian Australian Football League commenced operations in 1989 with two clubs. The oldest league in North America is the Ontario Australian Football league, which today features an eleven team league, playing a 14 match regular season. The Alberta league has the largest womens league in Canada with four womens teams. The British Columbia league benefits from the largest junior Australian football program. In total there are 21 Australian football teams in Canada, and an additional six womens teams. All leagues in Canada are overseen by AFL Canada, who administers the Canadian national team, the Northwind, composed entirely of Canadian nationals.

The Northwind play an annual match against a United states team, the Revolution, known as the 49th parallel cup. A record crowd of 2500 watched this match in 2007 in Vancouver. Canada competed in the inaugural International Australian Football Cup in 2002, and have attended every Cup since placing 9th (out of 11), 7th (from 10), and 6th (from 16). Canada have played 16 matches in the competition, having won 6 and lost 10. They are currently ranked seventh in the world – not including Australia.

The 2007 Australian Football League international census shows 15 senior teams, 12 junior teams, and 825 registered players. Auskick type programns in Canada are known as Cankick.

In 2008, Mike Pike a Canadian born rugby union player was selected as an international rookie, and in 2010 began playing senior football as a ruckman with the Sydney Swans, playing out a successful season, including two finals in 2010. Mike Pyke played Rugby Union for the Canadian national team, playing in 17 matches, including a match against the All Blacks in 2007 where he reportedly ran the length of the field to score a try. In 2006, Pyke played Rugby Union for French Top 14 side, US Montauban. He has now played 24 games in the AFL.

United States

Exhibition matches were played in the United States as early as 1963 when Geelong played Melbourne in front of 3500 people in San Francisco. Four more exhibition matches have been played since, twice in Miami, once in Portland and once in Los Angeles. The match in Portland between Melbourne and West Coast has been the highest attended Australian football match in the United States to date, with more than 14,000 people at the game.

The first game between US based clubs took place in 1996, between Cincinnati and Louisville, and resulted in the formation of the Mid American Australian Football League. Today, it has 12 teams in two divisions and is an 18 a side based competition. Wikipedia claims this as a semi professional league, however I’ve been unable to verify this elsewhere. The USAFL today oversees 36 clubs in various leagues around the country. The 2009 USAFL annual report claims teams played more than 250 sanctioned matches in 2008, and more than 2700 matches since 1997.

Metro Footy was developed in the United States as a means to combat the chronic shortage of Australian football sized grounds, as well as to allow more competitive football without the need for a full sized Australian rules team. These are typically nine a side matches played on grid iron or soccer fields, with some field movement restrictions in place. Forwards and backs must remain within a given territory while midfielders may roam the field. If you are familiar with netball rules, then you’ll understand how this works. Metro footy teams feed into the larger Australian football teams, and players participate in the USAFL National Championships.

The USAFL National Championships have been held since 1998, and is currently claimed as the largest Australian football tournament held anywhere in the world for sheer number of teams involved. The first nationals featured five teams, the 2010 tournament featured 30 mens teams and eight womens teams. The Championships involve three mens divisions and a womens division.

All leagues in the United States are overseen by the USAFL, who administers the national squads, including the Revolution (mens) and Freedom (womens). The Revolution have competed in every International Australian Football Cup since 2002, placing fifth (from 11), third (from 10th) and seventh (from 16th). The United States is currently ranked fourth in the world, having won 11, and lost six from its 17 matches at the tournament. The Freedom toured Australia in 2008, losing all four matches.

The 2007 Australian Football league International census shows the United States had 2000 registered players. It is currently the stated goal of the USAFL to reach 10,000 players within ten years and be the best amateur league outside of Australia. Auskick type programs in the United States are typically known as Footykids and recently “Saturday Morning Footy”.

United States born players to feature in the AFL include former West Coast Eagle dual premiership winner Don Pyke, and former Sydney Swan Sanford Wheeler. Wheeler was the first African-American player to play in the AFL. Collingwood have selected a US basketballer, Seamus McNamara as their international rookie for 2010/2011. McNamara played college basketball and professional basketball in Germany.

South America

Australian football was first played in Argentina in 1997, consisting of three teams, primarily made up of rugby union players. There are now four sides, each with an under 19′s team. Argentina played Chile in an international match in 2008. A Convicts tour were scheduled for 2006 but were canceled, however the Convicts were scheduled to tour in 2010. Argentina have not competed at the International Cup. Australian Football in Argentina is governed by the Argentine Australian Football Association.

Australian football in Brazil appears to consist entirely of a team of mainly expatriate Australians. The code first appeared in Chile in 2002, as part of a marketing program by a Chilean business to introduce and make money from new sports in the country. The sport is confined mainly to the expatriate community, although several students who have studied in Australia have displayed an interest.

Players from South America who have played Australian Football at the top level include former North Melbourne player Jose Romero (Chile), and presently Collingwood premiership player Harry O’Brien (Brazil).

Conclusion

Australian Football has come a long way in North America since 1989. It does, however, have a long way to go before its taken seriously. The stated aims of the USAFL would be awesome to see fulfilled. From a code perspective, it’s great to see regular competition between nations, even at this level. With dominant indigenous leagues in American and Canadian football, it will never be the first choice sport of the growing male, particularly as people with the right Australian football skill sets can slot nicely into the American codes as demonstrated by a number of Australians playing in the NFL.

The great news story out of North America is without a doubt Mike Pyke. An international rugby union player converting to Australian rules is virtually unheard of, but a Canadian one to boot? And not just converting but being a successful convert at the highest level. It gives us great hope for the likes of Karmicheal Hunt and Israel Folau in their own code switches.