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.
This year’s final features the Sydney Swans, who finished first in the regular season but only two wins better than their opponents, the Western Bulldogs of Melbourne. The Doggies are Australia’s least successful historical club, having only appeared in two grand finals since their 1925 league entry. They last won it in 1954 when they were known by their inner suburb’s name, Footscray. Sydney are the firm favorites at 1.5/1 versus 2.5/1 for the Bulldogs.
Fox has done right by Aussie Rules. They’ve showed at least one live game a week this season with numerous replays. They’ve even put games on their flagship, FS1. According to the USAFL and sportstvratings.com the games average around 40,000 viewers, which is on par with numbers for the Bundesliga and the NWSL.
This year’s Grand Final will be on Fox Soccer Plus and available to stream on Fox Sports Go and FOX Soccer 2GO. A number of American Aussie Rules clubs will be hosting viewing parties, like the New York Magpies, who will be at the 5th & Mad Bar and the LA Dragons, who will be at Busby’s West. A full list of pub parties is available here.
The National Rugby League
(NRL) Grand Final
When: (very late) Saturday, Oct. 1, 3:30AM EST/12:30AM PST
(Replay Monday, Oct. 3, 2PM EST/11AM EST)
Where: Stadium Australia (ANZ Stadium), Sydney
Who: Melbourne Storm vs. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
How: Fox Soccer Plus, Fox Sports Go and FOX Soccer 2GO
All the bone-crushing tackles of American football with none of the forward passing! Rugby is often tipped as the sport that could replace the NFL should concussion lawsuits and frowning moms kill off America’s most popular sport. Sports Illustrated even laid out such a scenario in their NFL preview issue last month. Almost a million viewers tuned in to watch global heavyweights New Zealand demolish the US on NBC two years ago, and rugby sevens was a big hit at the Rio Olympics. Sevens is definitely entertaining but a little one-note. Rugby Union is the glamorous international standard but, especially as played by Europe’s Six Nations, its gameplay has lately been focused on back-and-forth kicking to establish field position (punting) and then hoping for an often-invisible infraction to earn a penalty kick for three points. Tries (touchdowns) are on the decline. Or as The Guardian’s Richard Williams puts it, “…compared with what the game used to be, the excitement now comes in a very debased form.”
Rugby League offers three appealing factors for Americans. First, there’s the familiar comfort of a fixed set of tackles (downs) per offensive possession. Second, there are fewer scrums in League. Finally, there’s the exciting chip kick where teams will try to kick the ball slightly forward and then sprint to recover it behind the defense.
The game itself was born in working class Northern England and is now the dominant sport in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland. Much like how in America college football rules the South while baseball rules the Northeast, geography divides sports in Australia to an extent. The “Barassi Line” refers to how Aussie Rules, well, rules in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth while Rugby League is king in Sydney, Canberra, and Brisbane.
This year’s Grand Final features the first rugby league team to cross the Barassi Line, the Melbourne Storm, against the Cronulla Sharks of southern Sydney. Since their founding in 1997 the Storm have been one of the most successful clubs in the competition with four Grand Final wins (two were subsequently stripped for salary cap abuses). On the other hand, the Sharks joined the league in 1967 and have never won a title. The Storm are the slight faves at 1.85/1 versus 2/1 for the Sharks.
Fox’ coverage of the NRL isn’t as robust as its Aussie Rules slate but most weeks there’s a game to stream on the app. The NRL’s audience in America is about half that of the AFL’s. The late Saturday night/early Sunday morning start time means that few cities will have bars that will be open to show the game outside of New York. But Fox’ replay is lunchtime Monday – perfect for sitting down with a beet-and-fried-egg-topped burger washed down with an ice-cold XXXX.
The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) All-Ireland Senior Football Championship
When: Saturday, Oct. 1, Noon EST, 9AM PST
Where: Croke Park, Dublin
Who: Dublin vs Mayo
How: GAA Go PPV streaming ($25 or $16 for the highlights)
If you’ve ever imagined what soccer would be like if you could use your hands look no further. But Gaelic Football is so much more than that. It’s the perfect TV sport because it combines Aussie Rules’ breathless end-to-end kicking and hand-passing action with the possibility of a dramatic soccer-style goal all in a tidy 70 minutes.
But its governing body, the Gaelic Athletic Association, has done its very best to keep Gaelic football, and its lacrosse-esque cousin hurling, a well-kept secret. For years the GAA made sure that games weren’t available outside of Ireland and Great Britain. Even radio streams were blocked. Highlights wouldn’t be made available to US-based viewers on RTÉ’s website for weeks. Finally, in 2014, RTÉ and the GAA teamed up to offer GAA GO, a pay-per-view streaming service. Prices are exorbitant, $25 for the final and $16 just for the highlights, but at least the games are available. A season pass at $135 is certainly reasonable, but the whole scheme ensures that the game will spread no further than its dedicated Irish-American fanbase.
And it’s truly a shame. Saturday’s final is a replay because two weeks ago, in the original final, County Mayo kicked a point (a ball hit through the uprights above the goal) in the dying seconds to tie the game against Dublin, the mighty defending champions. This dramatic ending came despite Mayo conceding two own goals. The replay, under the floodlights at historic Croke Park promises to be a corker. Dublin are slight faves. A fair amount of pubs will be showing the game as well, albeit with a cover charge. Otherwise, the match and its highlights are sure to hit YouTube in the coming days.
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