It all started innocently enough last year. I'm an indifferent athlete, whose best sport is watching sport, and, while idly twisting the TV dial in search of some entertainment, I suddenly came upon an Australian-rules football game on ESPN. I had heard somewhere that this obscure sport was played along the underside of Australia, but knew little else about it except that it was wild and wooly and all the rage in Melbourne. My curiosity was aroused, however, so I settled down to give it a go.
At first it was all a bit bizarre, not to mention utterly bewildering, as I tried to figure out what two packs of players, dressed in shorts and basketball-type jerseys, were up to as they roamed about a vast field in hot pursuit of an oval leather ball roughly the size of a football.
The stands were absolutely packed with fans yelling their lungs out and waving huge colored streamers. At each end of the field loomed not two but four goalposts with no crossbars, and they were carefully watched over by an official who was distinctively garbed in a white fedora and long white coat.
I had never seen anything quite like it: The ball moves about at an erratic, hectic pace as players frantically give chase. This often leads either to mad scrambles on the ground with arms and legs flailing or players leaping like crazed kangaroos high in the air in an attempt to catch the ball after a man has drop-kicked it 50 or 60 yards.
It didn't take long to figure out that the object was to kick the ball through the opponent's goalposts. And that was done often enough to make it seem like a basketball game, with scores regularly ranging up into the hundreds. The terminology the Aussie announcers used was maddeningly obscure—"behinds," "marks," "rovers" and "ball ups." As for the players' names, they sounded like characters right out of Dickens: Rene Kink, Gary Sidebottom, Malcolm Blight. One was called "The Flying Doormat," a feisty little player named Bruce Doull.
Somehow the game held my attention with its continuous action and spectacular play. After watching a few more games I was hooked. What at first seemed like mass confusion became understandable. What looked like a mob turned out to be two well-coordinated teams of 18 men apiece, most playing fixed zonal positions except for the three rovers per side who stay close to the ball. I learned that a kick through the center uprights was worth six points and one through the outer pairs one point and was called—surprise!—a behind.
I soon picked up on the other terms as well. A mark occurs when a player catches the ball after it has been kicked by a teammate from at least 10 yards away; this is also known as "taking the mark." The receiver is then allowed a free kick. Ball ups refers to the restart of play, when one of the two field umpires bounces the ball against the ground and opposing players leap for it. The man in the white fedora is the goal umpire. A game runs for 100 minutes, with four 25-minute quarters, and play is continuous. If there is an interruption because of a severe injury or a punch-up (fight), time is tacked on at the end of the quarter. Each team is allowed two substitutes. Teams change ends every quarter and there is a 15-minute break between halves.
My addiction to Australian Rules (known Down Under as "footy") sometimes led me to set the alarm for five in the morning because of the vagaries of ESPN's scheduling. The game soon spoiled pro football and soccer for me, the former now ponderous and deadly dull because of the long breaks in the action, the latter a bit on the delicate side and low-scoring to boot. Because the action closely follows the ball, footy isn't at all difficult to comprehend on the tube. Besides, who can resist the doyen of Australian sports announcers, former footy great Lou Richards, when during a hard-fought match he invariably intones, "It's been a ding-dong struggle all day."
ESPN first showed Australian Rules last year but did very little to promote it, scheduling the games at odd hours of the day and night. It never did get around to explaining the rules, probably figuring it wasn't worth the bother, footy being just some more inexpensive programming that might prove moderately amusing. Perhaps to the network's chagrin, the game caught on, and ESPN was ill-equipped to provide rules to Rules and more information in response to a flood of letters and phone calls from excited viewers. Indeed, based on a mail survey, footy turned out to be ESPN's fourth most popular sport in the fall, after Canadian football, college football and auto racing.
This season ESPN is carrying 27 games—22 regular-season matches, three playoff matches, the Grand Final, and an all-star match—one each week to assuage us addicts who last year never knew from one week to the next when footy would be scheduled. (Once I got up at 5:30 a.m. to watch, only to discover it was a repeat of the match the week before.) ESPN now carries the game Tuesdays at 5 p.m. E.S.T with a repeat the next day at 8 a.m.—not exactly prime time.
And there is a lag of at least six weeks between the time a match is played and when we see it. The 1981 season began in Australia on March 28 and ran through the Grand Final on Sept. 26; ESPN started its coverage May 8 and will continue it until Dec. 25. More than half an hour of play in the first two quarters is edited out so that a game will fit into a 90-minute slot. ESPN's Steve Bornstein foresees a time when the lag will be sharply reduced or eliminated entirely and the games carried live.
Luckily for me, I'm a freelance writer and can always catch the action. Occasionally I even get a furtive midweek call from a sympathetic friend: "Doing anything around lunch, mate? I've got the videotape of the game played two Saturdays ago." So off I trek into midtown Manhattan to watch Australian Broadcasting's superb one-hour wrap-up, The Winners, with a couple of other addicts in a nearly deserted screening room. It's not quite like being there, but it sure beats waiting around another month for the ESPN broadcast.
What we addicts see on ESPN are the top Australian teams, all members of the Victorian Football League, which consists of 12 clubs, 11 of them in and around Melbourne. The other, the Cats, is located in the port city of Geelong, an hour's drive away.
Games are played every Saturday afternoon and on the occasional holiday Monday, drawing upwards of 150,000 barrackers (fans) into the league's stadiums—that's roughly 5% of the 2.9 million people who live in the Melbourne area. That isn't surprising, because each club has a fervent local following. Those who miss the live action can watch a two-hour TV show on Sunday nights that features replays, interviews and discussion. Oh to be in Melbourne!
While it's pretty hard to cheer on a favored team from 10,000 miles or so away, it's a safe bet to follow the fortunes of the Collingwood Magpies, which my source, "Down Under," compares with the New York Yankees for depth of talent and the inherent wherewithal to take the Grand Final in any season—they've done it 13 times in all, a total matched by only one other team, the Carlton Blues—or at least to be one of the five teams to make the playoffs. Other traditionally strong teams are the North Melbourne Kangaroos and the Hawthorn Hawks. But, says Down Under, other clubs to watch are Geelong, the Essendon Bombs (a very young team some call the "Bloody Essendon Kids") and the Fitzroy Lions.
As for me I diligently follow North Melbourne, poring over the weekly league statistics that I get by mail. Last season, when I became a barracker, the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1974. This year the 'Roos had a strong start but began to fade in the stretch. Although the playoffs and Grand Final have already been played in Australia, I won't spoil the ending for those who'll watch ESPN and come to share my footy fetish.