Aussie Rules Football Takes Flight in Philly
- Updated: April 26, 2013
It is a bright, sunny afternoon in Melbourne, Australia. The Richmond Tigers and Collingwood Magpies are playing to a crowd of over eighty thousand people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The crowd, there to watch their nation’s indigenous version of football, is full of color and passion. The 44 men on the field playing the game are equally passionate, playing a sport that many in Australia have played their whole lives.
Several hours later, on a field half a world away, another group of men are playing the same sport. The skills — and the accents — may not be as sharp as the ones at the M.C.G., but the passion and the love for the game is the same.
The second group of men, the Philadelphia Hawks Australian Football Club, are among a small and slowly growing group of devotees for the game that has, more or less, gained cult status in this country.
The Hawks began their season this past Saturday with its first scrimmage, but their regular season opens at home at FDR Park in South Philly this Saturday at 11am against the New York Magpies.
So how did a sport, largely indigenous to a continent almost 10,000 miles away, plant its seed here?
Way back in 1998, a group made up of America converts and Australian ex-pats gathered weekly at FDR to kick the ball around. The group grew by word of mouth, and eventually there was enough people interested for the team to start playing games. Originally christened the Crows, within five years the team had a national championship under their belt and they earned the attention of an AFL club for sponsorship. They took the namesake of their mother club, the Melbourne-based Hawthorn Hawks in 2004, and have sported the same brown and gold colors ever since.
“I absolutely love playing this game,” says Jon Loring, head coach of the Hawks. “I just love the whole concept of the game from how it is structured to how it incorporates a variety of different skills, techniques, and strategies within the play of the game.” Loring, an Allentown native who still lives in the area, began playing with the Lehigh Valley Crocs in 2000. When they folded three years later, he and the remaining three Crocs players joined the Hawks. He has been making the 90 minute for training and games ever since.
“There is a game within the game where it’s just mano-a-mano, me against my opponent, time and time again throughout the course of the game and the learning experiences that one will face throughout one’s career is invaluable.”
Moreso than any other foreign sport, Australian Rules Football is quite possibly the most misunderstood sport amongst American sports fans. In conversations with those who are not familiar with it, it has been mistaken for rugby, soccer, and borderline misdemeanor assault. The uniforms look right out of Erving-Bird era NBA highlights, with stunningly short shorts and tops that are either long sleeved or no sleeved — no in between. And what’s with those referees in the funny hats making those funny hand gestures?
Aussie Rules, as it turns out, is something completely different altogether. While the game does have elements of rugby, soccer, and a small South American soccer riot, there are also elements of American football, volleyball, and basketball. Aussie Rules is played on a large oval field that is roughly 170 yards long and 140 yards wide. Each team fields 18 players each, who can roam freely on the field without fear of pesky offside calls. Teams advance the oblong ball by running with it, kicking it, or by punching it, volleyball style, to pass it to teammates (throwing the ball in any direction is not allowed). If the ball is kicked and caught on the fly by a player on either team, the receiver is credited with a “mark” and is given a free kick. Marks can be taken in the air, and often players leap on each other’s backs to try and make spectacular grabs.
At either end of the field are sets of four posts, two taller ones in the middle flanked by two smaller ones. A ball kicked between the two tall posts scores a “goal”, worth six points. If the ball is kicked between one of the big posts and one of the small ones constitutes a “behind”, tallying one point. The team that is ahead after four twenty-minute quarters is the winner.
(This is just a small sampling of the rules. For a more detailed look, check out this American guide to Australian Rules Football)
“There is no other sport like in the US,” says Dan Milbourne, one of the Hawks’ Australian contingent, “People ask me, ‘Is it like rugby? Is it like soccer?’ No, it isn’t. Then what is it? No pads, full contact, and it’s bloody awesome! And then I smile.”
Footy has been around for 150 years, invented as a way for cricket players to stay fit during the winter. For most of that time, it was barely known outside of its home continent. Then, in 1983, ESPN started showing Australian Football League games to fill time during its late night schedule. The seed was planted, and slowly a small following was formed. By 1997, those initial devotees were joining with homesick Aussies to form teams and a league, the United States Australian Football League, was formed. Today, the league has nearly 40 teams with over a thousand registered players.
But growing “footy” and the USAFL, not to mention the Hawks, has been a tricky undertaking, especially in Philadelphia’s crowded sports scene. Plus, the lack of accessible media coverage (AFL games are currently shown live on Fox Soccer Plus, a $15/month premium channel) has kept the game’s exposure to a minimum.
That said, word of mouth amongst the teams players has been the biggest recruiting tool. Players telling friends about games, ads in Craiglist, even papering college campuses have helped grow the club to a steady thirty-man roster, most of whom are Americans.
“I was talking to my coworker in the fall about ways I could get involved in sports after I graduated college,” says New Jersey native Matt Jennings, who is an experience ultimate disc player. “He mentioned to me that he did the Aussie Rules league and I figured I’d give it a shot. I didn’t know a single thing about it.”
The team’s website and Facebook page proudly sports “No Experience Necessary” on its banners, and are willing to take the time to teach anyone willing and wanting about footy. New players are instantly welcomed into the group, and engaged from the first moment they set foot on the field. Jennings and a number of other players got their first taste of competitive play during the scrimmage this past weekend, and are excited for their first season clash against New York.
“So far, what I love the most about it is how helpful everyone is to give pointers and a helping hand. I feel like I’m really getting the hang of the rules and the sport now, and I can only get better!”
The Hawks themselves are as eclectic as the city the represent and the sport the play. They have had players from 18 to 59 years old, ones that hail from places such as Ireland, Canada, and Guyana (in addition to the US and Australia, of course), and whose careers range from masonry to tech support to military work. Players have also come from different sporting backgrounds; football, rugby, soccer players, even hockey players and karate students have found their way on board the Hawks.
“Anyone can play this sport,” Loring explained. “It doesn’t matter how tall you are or how fast, strong, athletic you are, there is a position on the field for you, one that plays to your strengths and skill-set that one may bring, or even acquire, to help the team win.”
For its participants, Aussie Rules is more than just a thing they do on weekends, it’s more like a family. Aside from training sessions and games, the Hawks hold social gatherings during the year, from Australia Day in January, to the AFL Grand Final (championship) party in September, to the team’s year-end dinner in November. The games themselves are events, filled with Aussie flair (meatpies and sausage rolls are a favorite amongst everyone), with friends and family members coming out to cheer on the team, enjoy some barbecue and then head back to the bar where both clubs share a laugh and a beer in true Aussie fashion.
Loring attributes the team’s family philosophy to one word: Culture. “The Philadelphia Hawks are more than a group of guys just coming out to play a sport every once in awhile. We build friendships within the club that last a lifetime. The Hawks family extends from the players to their families and friends, and once you’re a part of that, you are always welcome well beyond the ‘playing’ years of the individual teammate. This is the culture that the Hawks are excited to grow over the oncoming years.”
That’s part of the sport’s charm, not only here, but in Australia. In their new ad, which runs during Fox Soccer Plus’s AFL games, the USAFL flaunts its two biggest draws: the fun athletic competition, and the camaraderie. And with teams as spread out as they are, it gives its players a chance to make friends and see places that they wouldn’t get to see normally. In August, for example, the Hawks will make their first ever trip to Columbus to take on the Columbus Jackaroos, a team that has grown quickly since its founding in 2009. The climax of the season occurs in October, with the USAFL National Championships in Austin, Texas. The Nationals are the biggest Aussie Rules tournament outside of Australia, featuring men’s and women’s teams from across North America.
While the Hawks give Americans a chance to experience something new, it also gives Australians living in the Philadelphia area a taste of something familiar. For Australians like Milbourne, who married an American and settled in Phoenixville in 2003, it is a very important reminder of home and a way for him to keep that part of him intact.
“Having a footy club in the States means the world to me. Without it, I think I would have packed up the family and moved home a long time ago.”
Milbourne and the other Aussies (the Hawks currently have four), are just as vital to the development of fresh talent in the US. Acting as mentors, they help new players get acclimated, which piques interest and improves the quality of the game.
The regular game schedules are augmented by “Metro” games; smaller, 9-a-side contests that are designed to get players, rookies and vets alike, involved and acclimated to the sport. In some cities, Metro leagues are four to six teams deep and are used to feed the traveling teams. There are also co-ed programs, such as Ausball, which get both men and women into the sport as players and supporters.
The hope is to develop players from a young age and have them gain the attention of teams in Australia. Programs such as the Revolution and the Freedom national teams (for men and women, respectively) and the creation of national development squads have helped to cultivate the league’s best players and prepare them for the triennial International Cup in Australia, as well as the yearly 49th Parallel Cup match against Canada.
For their part, AFL Clubs do provide support to clubs here in the US. Most teams are named and paired after AFL clubs (the New York Magpies get considerable support from the Collingwood Magpies, one of the AFL’s most infamous clubs), and are seen as ways for each team to expand their global footprints. The Hawthorn Hawks donated long sleeve uniforms in 2011, which the team wears from time to time.
On the field, a breakthrough into the Australian game may also be on the horizon. In December, the North Melbourne Kangaroos of the AFL signed Eric Wallace, a basketball player in college. Wallace, a Florida native, tried out at the first US scouting combine in Los Angeles last year, an attempt by the league to capitalize on athletes who played sports in college, but who were left by the wayside professionally. A second combine was held last month, with similar hopes. Players like Wallace, learning the game from scratch, have a chance to bring awareness of footy to the US if they are successful.
Loring believes that the key to the growth of Aussie Rules in this country is the vision of the people who play it. “Vision, coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit and support from the already existing fan base, if you will, of the existing league would definitely grow the sport in the US. I think the key to that will lie in growing the network of those willing to actively put in the work to grow the fan base. And for one to put in the work to grow the sport, one must have time. And for one to have time, one must have money. In short finding a way to become self-sufficient as a league,team or organization is the real key to growing the sport in a significant way.”
But that’s the future. For now, the Hawks open their 16th season on Saturday morning at FDR Park against Magpies, who were runners up at last year’s Nationals in Mason, Ohio.
Win, lose or draw, it is guaranteed to be, as the Aussies say, a “rippa” good time.
You can find out more information about the team, including their game schedule, at www.phillyhawks.com. Information about the USAFL can be found at www.usafl.com.