Finally Footy

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It took me nearly a year of living in Melbourne but I finally lost my footy virginity at the MCG over this past weekend. Any Australian would know exactly what I meant, but to American readers of the Letter from Melbourne the translation of the previous sentence goes as follows: I went to my first live Australian Football League (AFL) match at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds stadium this past weekend.

It was a singularly important event for Australia and me, as anyone who's been here for any period of time knows how important the AFL or "footy" is towards understanding Australian popular culture. In fact, I am more apprehensive about writing about footy than anything else I've tackled (bad pun) about Australian society, including negative gearing and ANZAC Day. I know there will be many viewpoints and some potentially emotionally violent reactions to this report. I'll get it wrong in parts for certain. But to spend a year in Oz and not comment about footy would be just "chicken" on my part - unless I had the largest cultural blind spot on record.

Sport (the plural is less common here) seems overall more important in Australia than in California or in the other places I've lived in the U.S. (New York City and Massachusetts). I haven't been able to read any analyses on whether my impression is correct or why it should be so. Has anyone done comparisons on the importance of sports across national borders?

I muse that this Aussie obsession with sport competition comes from deep within the Australian unconscious in making up for the convict origins of the country. Also the weather is decent to very good for outdoor sports all year round except in Tasmania where it does snow in winter. I base my Australian impressions primarily on my experience hanging around Victoria for the past year. I do have some statistics to back up my opinions.

But first an anecdote: I was in my second full week here setting up our townhouse with Denise when a Telstra tradie (a tradesperson/electrician/plumber/etc.) working on connecting my internet asked me after about five minutes of chit chat "Who's your team, mate?" Importantly this exchange took place last July, in the middle of the Aussie winter and a little more than halfway through the AFL season. I had no idea what he was talking about. I asked for clarification. "I mean, who's your team? Everybody has to have a footy team," he repeated.

Honestly, I had no idea of who or what the AFL teams were. So I said to him, "I haven't decided yet. I'm new here," as if he couldn't tell by my accent. That seemed to satisfy him, as most Aussies have given us social passes on virtually everything, based upon their opinion that Americans are basically decent chaps and don't know much about Ozian ways. However, the next week, another tradie in to install something else, within moments of meeting me asked me the same question, "Who's your team, mate?"

This time I was prepared. I had done a little reading in the sport section of The Age which we had begun to receive everyday. I read a number of the teams' names and recognized Hawthorne as a suburb (neighborhood) of Melbourne. So I thought I was on safe territory when I told him "I'm for Hawthorne." Little did I know that by accident I had picked the AFL equivalent of the baseball New York Yankees or American football San Francisco 49ers during their respective decades long hegemonies. My tradie grunted (I'm not sure in satisfaction or annoyance) and said, "They're a good team mate. You know how to pick 'em." The Hawthorne Hawks, by the way, went on to win their third Grand Final in a row in September.

But I notice other signs of AFL craziness. For example, today's Monday Age ran a total of forty-four pages. Eleven were devoted to sport and among that, eight to AFL news. I do remember the Daily News, another tabloid in New York City, having a large sports section -- but not one quarter of the paper, nor nearly one fifth devoted to just one sport. The AFL is on the telly all weekend from Friday afternoon to Sunday night. This is similar to American football on television but only if one includes college football coverage.

The AFL is Australia's most popular sport as measured by Google searches and attendance. Well over a $1 billion (AUD) a year is spent around activities associated with the AFL. How did this AFL come to be?

The first matches that came to be called Australian Rules football were played in Melbourne in 1858 and a code of rules was published the following year. For decades, it remained a local Victorian State activity struggling against the predominance of rugby in New South Wales and Queensland. By 1897 there were eight clubs in Melbourne. They came together to form the Victorian Football League (VFL). Yet by the 1970s the VFL was having significant financial struggles. In 1980, one team from South Melbourne relocated to Sydney calling themselves the Swans. West Coast (Perth) and Brisbane were added in 1987. The league's name was changed to the AFL in 1990. There are now 18 professional clubs, only nine based in the Melbourne area.

I'm not sure I really want to describe the game in detail since I won't really know what I'm talking about. There are two teams of eighteen players on a very large oval of turf (the field overall seemed to me to be about three times the size of an American football field). The players advance the ball by running no more than 15 metres (though in the game I saw this limit seemed to be monitored arbitrarily) without bouncing, throwing, kicking or punching the ball (which is somewhat larger than an American football with softer edges) to another player. Six points are scored when the ball is kicked between two goal posts seven yards (6.4 metres--the game rules were determined long before Australia went metric in the 1960s) apart. You score only one point if you can kick the ball between the "behind" posts which are further separated from the main goal posts by another seven yards.

The AFL plays four quarters of about 20 minutes each (with some stoppage). Final scores range typically from the sixties to lower hundreds. These guys run around for over an hour pretty continuously (which the Aussie fans point to as a major advantage over American football) jumping on one another, tackling, and pulling each other down. It's violent but clearly not as traumatic as American football. I saw only one player with a leather-skin helmet. There are no pads or plastic helmets like in American football - which is probably why it is safer.

I had last fall watched two games on TV with a mate. He had explained the basic rules but I was lost over the subtleties when the MCG crowd would "ooh" or "boo". I did learn that a "hospital pass" was a weak throw or kick to another player - what Americans would call a hanging pass very easy to intercept by the defensive back.

So I already knew something about the game but had never been to one. I was supposed to go with a mate to the Grand Semi-Final at the MCG in September last year, but some of you may recall I had a little side trip to the surgeon's. So I was too incapacitated to handle 90,000 people. But a tennis playing friend of mine, James, and a big footy fan, had asked me several times if I wanted to go to a match with him. When I realized I was running out of time Down Under I eagerly accepted.

Going with James turned out to have extra bonuses I didn't expect. James was a full member of the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC). It may not sound like an exclusive membership when you learn there are 61,800 full members and 41,000 restricted members. But what you don't know is there are 225,000 people on the waiting list just for restricted membership.

When James was born his father immediately put him on the waiting list. When he was 19 he became a restricted member and at age 27 a full member. James I believe is 52. The estimated wait currently for full membership is 60 years. The MCC noticed that people were dying before they became members. The MCC leadership (with a supporting vote from the members) recently changed their membership rules to include a new category of "provisional membership" which would include fewer privileges -- primarily less access to the AFL playoffs tickets.

Yeah, that's what MCC membership is mostly all about. There are various sports activities all over Victoria sponsored by the MCC but the waiting list is all about guaranteed entry into the footy Semi and Grand Finals at MCG. I told you they were all crazy. But among the other benefits of James being a bona fide full MCC member was entrance to the Long Room (an exclusive bar/restaurant with a dress code) and access to better semi-reserved seats.

So James told me to wear a coat and tie. He forgot to tell me that denims are outside the dress code. So when we were waiting for the one stop train ride to the MCG he stared at me silently for a long period and then said, "You're wearing denims." "James, you didn't tell me," I responded. "Well, they may not let us in, Larry." "No worries, mate," I said (I've picked up some lingo in a year), "They probably won't notice." James is a bit of a worrier (yes, even some Aussies worry). He really wanted me to have the full experience. We got into the Long Room without problems.

More than that, access to the MCG was a total piece of cake compared to getting to or parking at an American professional football stadium on game day. We arrived 90 minutes early. I wanted to check out the place. Our train left us with about a five-minute walk to the entrance of the stadium. Cars were parking in the grass just beyond the stadium. Contrast that with American football fans lining up in their cars, vans, and Winnebagos at 6:30 am game day at gates that only open at 10 am for a morning of tailgating excess. Indeed, there was little partying evident and overall much less obvious drunkenness, though there was plenty of booze around for purchase.

All tickets were $35(AUD). There are no reserved seats among the 100,000 available at the MCG. Except for the Semi and Grand Finals all seats for all games are first come first serve. Even for our "better" MCC seats we had to first get there and claim two. We were then given two ticket stubs attached to the seats so we could wander about. There were some glassed in -- what in America would be called "luxury boxes" (so they must be reserved I suppose) -- but relatively very few in number in contrast to a comparable American stadium.

I mentioned the seating capacity of the MCG. Perhaps our entry was so easy because the total admission published the next day in The Age to our middle level interest game between the Melbourne Demons (James' team) and the Western Bull Dogs (west of Melbourne, not Australia; actually originally a Footscray team) was only 39,000. More than half the stadium was empty. In fact regular games rarely sell out. Good games between the best teams will draw over 60,000.

Last year's Grand Final between my Hawthorne Hawks and Perth's West Coast Eagles drew 98,632. That's 0.4% of the entire population of Australia! The record for any sporting event at the MCG was 121,696 for the 1970 VFL Championship. The stadium was subsequently made smaller for safety and fire reasons. The largest crowd ever was 143,000 for a Billy Graham event in 1959. I was told that 25,000 people had to show up to break even in keeping the stadium open for an event.

Other brief notes about the game: the Long Room was pretty cool and slightly friendlier than an exclusive English club -- many men in fashionable suits and ties. I didn't notice the women's dresses as much. But there were many women present. I estimated ladies constituted a little under half the audience at this AFL game. Statistics bear me out. I saw several elderly women walking with canes. When was the last time you saw something like that at a Raiders' game?

Probably the queerest moment for me was when the home team Demons came out to the field from the clubhouse. In America, there's often booming, ear splitting rock music with smoke and fireworks to mark the entrance of the home team. Keeping with Oz's relatively lower key compared to American ostentation, at the MCG several men lifted a large sign with the words "THE HEARTS OF AN ARMY ARE BEATING WITH YOU. HOW HARD YOU FIGHT IS UP TO YOU," under which the Demon players came running through to the tune of...

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"You're a Grand Old Flag," by George M. Cohan! I remember the song from the movie musical starring James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy. Even all the words were the same except for leaving out the "white" of the "red, white and blue." The Demon colors are only red and blue. I could actually sing along with the lyrics because I really loved the movie when I was growing up ("My mudder thanks yee...my fadder thanks yee...etc."). It's really hard to escape American influence in Oz even in this citadel/temple of Australian culture.

Oh...the Demons were walloped: final score Bull Dogs, 114, Demons, 82. After an initial score, the Demons were generally three or four scores behind the Bull Dogs the entire game. James and I left with about ten minutes left in the fourth quarter. It was getting cold and we were dressed only in sports coats.

James, ever eager, asked me sincerely, "Do you think, Larry, footy could ever catch on in America?" My very short answer to my dear friend's question was "No." I think Americans are addicted to a higher energy, more violent, more intense form of bread and circus. Unless you were exposed to the AFL early in your life I don't think it would click. The deep bonding between footy and Australians goes back multiple generations (I saw many babies and toddlers at the game dressed in team colored regalia) that I suspect limits the full footy experience to those lucky individuals who were raised from an early age in this sunburned country.

Addendum: I feel I must add the curious case, which I just discovered, of Mason Cox: a 25-year-old, seven foot (211 cm) born and raised American who is starring in his first season playing AFL (after a successful college basketball career) for the Collingwood Magpies. Who knows? He could be starting a trend.

It's been a couple of weeks since our last Australian language class. Here goes: • bolshiness (British informal) - argumentative, a difficult person • boffin (British slang) - a scientist or technical expert • pollie (that should be easy) - Australian diminutive for politician • argy-bargy (British 1595-1605) -a vigorous discussion or dispute • po-faced (British) - having an overly serious demeanor or attitude; humorless • plonk (Australian corruption of French "blanc" wine) - inferior or cheap wine

Three weeks to go...