HIT SHOW: HOW ESPN CREATED A GENERATION OF FOOTY FANS
By RICH LIBERO
Those of us who watched Australian Rules Football on ESPN in the early 1980’s will always associate Men at Work’s “Down Under” with the show’s opening segment.
The kettle drum signaled the start of an exotic form of athletic chaos. The drums and cymbal crashes accompanied massive collisions into goal posts, shoulder-on-shoulder hits and marks where players jumped, planted their cleats into the back of an opponent and seemingly levitated in mid-air to make a mark.
Yes, back in 1982, the cable bill came with ESPN and we were happy. The thrill of watching a sport from a country most of us would never visit or understood added to the 24-hour sports network’s unique vision and value.
In a 1999 interview, veteran anchor Bob Ley reflected on ESPN’s 20th anniversary when he said: “The biggest cult, by far, surrounded Australian Rules Football.”
From 1980-86 ESPN broadcast a mix of live and tape-delayed VFL (Victorian Football League) matches. The game received reasonable time slots and gained popularity among the cable network’s growing audience.
ESPN essentially used the Australian feed, lending the complete flavor of watching this unique and entertaining sport as it was produced and packaged in a foreign land. The speed of the play-by-play combined with Aussie accents, colloquialisms and terminology required an attentive ear. Still, Americans gravitated to the spectacle.
“It was like a train wreck in sports,” former SportsCenter anchor George Grande said in ’99. “The people could care less about the rules and how you score, they just wanted to see people kill each other.”
Consider the fare on offer to the American sports fan at the time – the slow, low-contact pace of baseball or the intermittent violence of the NFL between huddles and commercials, low-impact basketball and ice hockey, which featured non-stop action, hits and fighting, but served as a mostly regional sport.
Suddenly, a bunch of massive, muscle-bound Aussies appeared with accents somewhere between an American country twang and England proper clad in weeny-bikini-sized shorts and wife-beater jerseys.
How much was a goal worth? What the heck was a behind? How do the announcers do the score line math so quickly? Who cares!?
Those things aside, fans gravitated to the non-stop action, power, pace, and massive, pre-historic-sized pom-poms undulating behind the goal posts. Oh yes, and of course, the two finger-pointing of some clinical looking dude with a hat and white lab coat whenever a goal was scored.
Back in those days, however, Aussie footy appeared under the banner of the VFL – the Victorian Football League. The sport dominated the Australian province of Victoria with the bulk of the league’s teams sharing grounds and orbiting in and around Melbourne.
In a way, the exposure in America cause the VFL to think bigger and by 1990, the league morphed into the Australian Football League. The league saw teams such as Footscray Bulldogs (now Western) re-brand and others – the Fitzroy Lions and Brisbane Bears — merge.
As the AFL grew, so did the league’s footprint into Adelaide, Fremantle, Gold Coast, Perth and Western Sydney.
But just as the AFL gained a polished status on par with some of the world’s top sports leagues, it lost its place in ESPN’s ever-crowding lineup. The reliable staple made way for more traditional American sports such as the NBA.
Of course, the massive growth of domestic and international soccer also helped consume the minds of internationally-minded American fans.
Today, hardcore footy fans soldier on, working hard to locate matches on a premium channel such as Fox Soccer Plus or FS1. The games are usually live and not in the best time slots, but they still manage to pull in ratings in the 30,000-50,000 range – a testament of devotion from ex-pat Aussies and absorbed Americans.
Major League Footy offers an opportunity for fans to discover an uniquely American-sized version of the game they learned to love on ESPN. And given the global information world we live, there’s a good chance, this could be playing to interested audiences back in Australia.
Wouldn’t that be a turnabout?
This article appears in the Spring 2018 edition of Major League Footy: The League