Landon Donovan, David Villa, and Carli Lloyd are in a Heineken ad campaign called “Soccer is Here” that’s all about how America now loves the sport that was once an unwanted and unloved import. But the truth is that most of our sports were imports to some extent. Baseball was brewed from arcane and baffling British ingredients like cricket, stoolball, and rounders. Nineteenth Century kids at the Ivy Leagues, along with New Jersey’s Rutgers and Montreal’s McGill, transformed Britain’s rugby into the football we love. Hockey came down from our polite northern neighbors. And James Naismith was a Canadian immigrant whose invention of basketball puts him on par with other illustrious Canadian-Americans like Leslie Nielsen, Drake, Ryan Gosling, and Pamela Anderson.
Still, it hasn’t been easy for foreign sports to crack the American market. It took soccer decades to make it to the mainstream. A crucial step was getting matches off of pay-per-view and onto regular TV so that casual and curious fans alike could get hooked by taking a look. Many sports haven’t learned that lesson. ESPN put the 2015 cricket World Cup on pay-per-view and Europe’s annual Six Nations rugby championship is also behind a paywall.
Three foreign sports that have yet to attract big American audiences, Aussie Rules football, Australia’s National Rugby League, and Gaelic football, are holding their respective championships this weekend. If you’re a fan of soccer’s free-flowing nature and American football’s hard-hitting then you’ll find a lot to like in all three games.
The Australian Football League (AFL) Grand Final
When: (late) Friday, Sept. 30, 12:30AM EST/9:30PM PST
(Replay Sunday Oct 2, 7PM EST/ 4PM PST)
Where: Melbourne Cricket Ground
Who: Sydney Swans vs. Western Bulldogs
How: Fox Soccer Plus, Fox Sports Go and FOX Soccer 2GO
Created by Australians for Australians this athletic and acrobatic game enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1980s when ESPN broadcast it to a bemused American audience. “The biggest cult of course, surrounded Australian Rules football,” observed ESPN O.G. Bob Ley.
It’s a relatively simple game to learn, after all I’m slow on the uptake but I picked it up pretty quick playing for the Los Angeles Dragons. Teams try to advance an American football-shaped ball (but much harder) and kick it or hand-pass it (sort of like a one-handed volleyball dig) to advance down the oval-shaped pitch aiming to eventually kick it through two narrow uprights for six points. If you miss the middle uprights but get it through the wider ones it’s only a point. Players can run with the ball but must bounce it to themselves or touch it to the ground every 15 meters. Gameplay-wise it’s very similar to Gaelic football and the two nations compete in the intermittently played “International Rules Football Series.” The one critique of Aussie Rules is that the actual scoring can be anticlimactic. In basketball or football the actual score, like LeBron’s Game 6 alley-oop or ODB’s one-handed TD catch while falling backwards in the end zone, is the highlight. In Aussie Rules it’s all about the relentless sprinting, precise passing in traffic, and the spectacular marks (catches) that put a team in good field position to end up kicking what is often just a gimme.