At a public park in Brooklyn, parallel to the East River, the New York Magpies—the city’s only Aussie Rules team—gear up to train, just like they do every Monday evening.
“There’s usually more people at training,” Shane Lowry, a longtime player and recently appointed coach, tells me. “We had a big weekend of footy in Philly, so I reckon a lot of people are tired.”
There are 30 or so players here, both men and women, all playing with evident enthusiasm. Sure, the kicks may be slightly off-centre, and they’re quarantined to the edges, stuck telling off the kids playing soccer for getting too close, but it’s still a club. And Shane is quick to assure me that the team is about more than just Australians missing home. What we’re looking at is the sport’s expansion into America.
The Magpies have been playing since 1998, one year after the formation of the country’s national league, the USAFL. The league, like the Magpies, is a serious competition, with teams all over the country. But in recent times they’ve found that maintaining enough growth has been a challenge. In 2006, the USAFL had 1048 registered players and 40 clubs. By 2018, According to USAFL figures, that figure had grown to just under 2000 players and 42 clubs.
“There just needs to be a little spark...whether it’s funding, programs or support, it’s just a little stagnant and needs a little bit more,” muses Shane.
Like all the players here, he believes the sport has a North American potential to be enormous. But whereas in China and London the AFL has a direct association with the group, the USAFL unfortunately lacks any AFL association—which basically kills opportunities for major sponsorship. “I’m not sure if [it’s] a branding issue, but it means we’re a stand-alone league following the rules of the AFL rather than being an understudy of them,” Shane tells me.
Since the early 2000s, the AFL has provided exposure through exhibition games, as well as financial and developmental support. In 2012, they invested heavily to grow the USAFL by establishing a five-year-plan aiming to ultimately establish 2000 players—30 of whom would go to Australia every year—as well as a men's, women's, and U21 national team. This didn't quite pan out though, and the only goal that was met was establishing a men and women's international team. As of 2018, the plan to grow seems dead, with no current or adapted plan in place.
It’s uncertain why the AFL sees no urgency to invest further, but many pundits and internal members like USAFL President Seb Aguiari agree the issue may be competition.
“The AFL probably recognises that the US market is pretty close to saturated with [the] NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and a growing [Major League Soccer]. Then you add College Sports and there [isn’t] much left in terms of exposure or merchandising,” Seb Aguiari writes via email—while assuring me he finds the AFL incredibly supportive.
Although logical, that lack of urgency for further support combined with the league’s low income creates an environment that is fairly non-conducive to expansion. Currently, the USAFL is wholly dependent on members donating their time, with every single official—including the executive board—volunteering, and bankrolling their own resources.
Players are also expected to commit significantly in time and costs. These costs can range from membership and uniforms to the costs of travel across the US and accommodation. That expectation is a deterrent both for any Australians looking to have a kick, and any Americans interested in an unknown sport.
“If I got paid a little bit, or even if I just had my travel expenses paid for...That would make it worth it,” says Nick Bowman, a 32-year-old American who has spent US$4,000 in the last year just to play.
While you're here, check out our doco on a Serbian soccer game that's endured communism and civil war: The Eternal Derby.
Nick has played in the USAFL for six years, recently representing the US internationally. He's devoted, traveling the country weekly, regularly playing two straight games in a row due to inadequate rostering. Nick tells me that if USAFL players were in the AFL, then exposure would increase. But unfortunately Americans are usually too old to be recruited, and discover the sport too late. Despite often being unsuccessful, scouts opt for college athletes found at combines: like Collingwood’s Mason Cox, a former basketball player at Oklahoma State University.
“If our league had more of an affiliation with the AFL, and we were able to start recruiting [players] younger—have some kind of academy [or] even an Auskick—[then we could] get the name out to other sports organisations,” Nick tells me, adding: "I think Mason Cox hurts the USAFL, because he didn’t play here. Having that funding would make such a difference.”
And sure, getting more funding to draw younger players makes sense, but another (cheaper and somewhat controversial) option is to just alter the game so it’s more appealing to a US audience. Because as a sport, Aussie Rules is completely alien to most Americans. One grab for familiarity would be to play AFL on rectangular fields rather than ovals, thus making it seem more like NFL.
“It’s coming to the US and not trying to fit the USAFL into the AFL mould, but seeing how the AFL can fit into the US and just going with it,” says Magpies president and former board member Andrea Casillas. “We don’t have ovals for example, and here in New York City we’re not going to find one. AFLX wasn’t something that was popular in Australia, but here, a lot of clubs were trying it.”
Another long-term solution may exist in the rise of women’s teams. Andrea has played for 13 years, founding the first women’s USAFL side in 2005, and during that time—and particularly in the last five years—she’s seen the number of women swell from 30 to 300 players in 22 clubs. The reason, according to Andrea, is due to the sense of community both on and off the field. “So many women have stayed on and supported the infrastructure after they’ve stopped playing. It’s hard to leave [your] family.”
Whether leveraging community is the ultimate way to get Aussie Rules to blow up in America is hard to know. But from watching the Magpies play, it seems like the only reason it’s even alive in New York. The future of AFL in the US may be uncertain, but as long as Andrea and her New York Magpies—and every other club across this country—keep coming together, then who knows what’s possible.
“That community is what’s needed,” Andrea says, “We want people to come, play games, and be supportive of each other, and then we’ll go from there.”
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CORRECTION 10/10/2018: An earlier version of this article referenced the New York Magpies meeting by the Hudson, not East, river.