The View From Down Here #4

NFL season is coming up. I know this because I read it on InsidePulse.

In Australia, most people think the NFL is some fringe political party, or a breakaway Aussie rules league. The only time we hear about it is the SuperBowl, and even then 75% of the media coverage focuses on the commercials.

The comings and goings during the off-season occur during our own football seasons, and so do not even so much as garner a paragraph in any of our papers.

In fact, in recent years the most media coverage the NFL has managed to get involved illegal dog fighting and Mr Vick! Now, for sports tragics like me (I’ve been following New England for over 20 years, when I first discovered gridiron) this is tough – and thank God for the Internet! – but the sport does have very few adherents in Australia, and even less who actually play. My spectacularly mediocre efforts as a defensive end and block tackle (I think that’s what the positions were called) still saw me enjoy a season on the field… in front of crowds of maybe thirty people, in oversized padding, on a modified rugby field.

This year a few stories seem to have penetrated into the world of Australian rules and rugby:
* Brett Favre retiring made it, though most would ask, “Who?”
* Some player allegedly threatened to kill a bunch of government officials because they wouldn’t give him a liquor license.
* Another player is dating Jessica Simpson and no-one likes it.
* A heap of players have been implicated in a steroid scandal, topped by a mysterious murder-suicide.
* A couple of Australians – Bennett and Rocca – punt for NFL clubs.
Those who read the nearly always excellent ‘Inside Sport’ magazine will know more, but that’s really all that has hit the mainstream media.

So why aren’t Australians as enthusiastic about the NFL? It’s got everything we like in football – bone-crunching tackles, kicking, fast running – and the rules are really simple, and yet we don’t get into it.

The biggest issue most Australians have is with the use of padding. Both rugby codes have the same full-on impact, and rugby union’s scrum can be as intense as the line of scrimmage. Australian rules has the same running tackles and collisions. And so followers of these codes look at the full body armour NFL players wear and think of them as over-pampered prima donnas, even if they do weight 150kg. Then again, I think New Zealand’s back line with Samoans and Maoris doing the haka before a game is a helluva lot more intimidating than a group of big Americans in plastic armour.

The next issue is the specialisation. Offensive, defensive and special teams; in our codes you might have a position on the field, but you are on the field for the entire game. This coming and going, spending half the game on the bench watching from the sidelines, is another reason NFL players are regarded somewhat suspiciously.

The celebration and braggadocio also tend to get up the noses of Australians watching. The choreographed touch-down or sacking dances seem over-the-top, and seem to go on forever. And the bragging and lack of humility in many of the best players also smacks of “little man syndrome” (but with the steroid use apparently porevalent…). But even though this is just a cultural difference, it is one which is now associated with gridiron in the eyes of many.

And then there’s the game duration. And Australian rules game lasts for 100 minutes plus time on, and this takes 2 hours to play. Rugby takes less than two hours to play its 80 minute games. Gridiron has 60 minutes of on-field time, and yet takes more than 2 hours to complete.

Now, I know that a country with a total population of 20 million people does not amount to much in the world, but the NFL has been pushing a globalisation agenda for a long time, even having their European league going ahead until this year. They are now pushing for regular season games in other countries, even selling out Wembley Arena in London. But for a once or twice a year thing outside North America, it has more novelty value than any real following; Australian rules has been trying it for years with similar success.

I think the NFL has to realise that the perceptions of their sport outside North America is not an overly positive one, and that this expansion into markets in the rest of the world is going to have to take a lot more than just presenting the game as it is.

For people like Australians (and New Zealanders and, I guess, Brits), that presentation is very important. And it is the reason we have so much trouble with gridiron.

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