For this latest installment in the International Football series, we talked to Denis Ryan, the President of the USAFL., with other input provided by Simon Boyce, the co-coach of the Austin Crows.
The First ever match between two US Clubs was in 1996 between Cincinnati and Louisville. Most US players discovered the game via 1980s television. Since then USAFL clubs have played more than 3,200 matches with more than 300 matches in 2012 alone (source: USAFL 2012 Annual Report)
Denis Ryan is the newly elected President of the United States Australian Football League and a member of the USAFL Hall of Fame, with his specific role being to maintain a long term vision and aims to kick start the growth of the game in America. He’s served as player, coach and vice president of the Baltimore-Washington Eagles club as well as coaching the Revolution.
Ryan, who played some footy for Clayton in the Eastern Football league in Victoria, became involved in the US footy scene at the end of a round the world trip, when during a stop over in Baltimore he became interested in a local team that was starting there.
The USAFL’ administers Australian Football in America with a primary focus of growing the game. The USAFL manages the US Nationals and the National teams, the Revolution and the womens team, the Freedom. The board of the USAFL is primarily run by Americans, it had no Australians on it last year, but it recently added two. Ryan says that this mix is important, as the Americans can occasionally miss the history and culture that has gone into the game.
The USAFL is a non profit organisation whose main sources of income are its AFL grant, player and club fees, and sponsorships in relation to the US National Championships.
There are 35 teams in the USAFL, some of which are very strong including New York and Denver. There are other clubs which tread a finer line with player numbers fluctuating below to just above or just below the needed player numbers. Ryan says its his mission to get these teams some help and get them viable. Boyce says that around a third of clubs in the USAFL have associated womens clubs.
Some clubs began introducing Ausball, a touch footy version of the game as early as 2006, before the AFL formally introduced AFL 9s. Ausball in a unisex competition.
Many teams have a metro team, essentially local ten a side competitions that are run by and act as feeders to larger clubs, and can lead to selection in the main city side. These are typically played on rugby, soccer or american football fields. Numbers per side can vary, there is no specific standard. Ryan says Recreational leagues are a big thing in the United States, where you see adults playing all kind of sports ranging from touch american football to kick ball.
Ryan cites Sacremento as a model for development. They began by building a metro league, developed a larger representative side, and this year competed in the US Nationals third division play offs just five years after starting.
The number of players in the USAFL is somewhat nebulous, as players only register with the league if they intend to play in the nationals. Consequently the USAFL knows it has at least 1,000 players, but Ryan says that the total number of players including metro competitions is likely to be as high as 1,400 – 1,500 at most. Boyce says that there are probably 120 players in the New York area alone, and that some clubs have double the number of players in the representative sides playing metro footy.
The 2011 Annual Report for the USAFL estimated that they were aiming for 10,000 Australian football players in the USA in 2016. Ryan says this number is probably going to be a stretch, but he’s hoping for significant progress towards that and expects to reach the target a year or two late.
Ten years ago, Denis Ryan was the founder of FootyKids, which was conceived as a Physical Education program with the hope that kids would play the modified form of the game at school and then form their own school teams. The proposal was put together, and presented to the AFL who gave them six months worth of funding to begin with. Ryan says that while the program hasnt been as successful as he’d like, he still beilieves in the program but would dearly love more funding for it.
Matches between USAFL are loosely organised for the most part, with matches organised primarily by the clubs themselves. Player numbers at smaller clubs and the distance between clubs are all factors preventing the establishment of any real league.
Ryan says another hampering factor is American perceptions of the game compared to their own variety of contact sport, they see football as violent, and requiring protection, where they see Australian football as being slightly the same but without protection.
The USAFL has a good relationship with AFL Canada, they play an international match every year called the 49th Parallel Cup. The Canadians have beaten the US once in the history of the competition. Ryan says that he is working towards increasing the number of matches the two countries play.
The US National championships were completed just weeks ago, having been hosted for a second time in Austin, Texas.The event requires space for 5 full size football fields.. With over 1,000 players attending it is the largest Australian Football tournament in the world.
Teams come from all over the US and Canada with 4 divisions of mens teams and a division of womens teams. Matches amongst the top divisions are 18 a side, with the number of players reducing through the lower divisions. The Wikipedia article on the Nationals quite extensive.
Katherine from womensfooty.com told Bigfooty that the womens division played either 16 a aide or 18 a side, where the official standard was 16 a side, but could be increased if both teams agreed to it.
Simon Boyce says that the ratio of Australians on the field cannot exceed 50%, with it being mandatory that 50% of players on the field be American born. Boyce says that Austin played very close to its quota. Some clubs, like New York and Calgary from Canada, end up with a large number of Australians on the bench. He doesnt believe that Australians are as influential in deciding match incomes as you might expect, although there are a number of good players in the competition including ex VFL and even ex AFL listed players.
This year saw several American AFL draftees, as well as Nick Riewoldt, and AFL officials attend the weekend event
America will be at the International cup in both Mens and Womens competitions, and Denis says that while its tough to break the hold of the big 3 (Ireland, PNG, New Zealand), advances in coaching using the internet and google hangouts means the US sides will be even more competitive in Melbourne next year.
The US has competed at all four international cups with their record at the international Cup sitting at 16-7, with their best result being a third place at the 2005 event.
If youd like to be involved in the USAFL or one of its clubs, you should visit their website at www.usafl.com.