The Austin — not Adelaide — Crows are the premiers of the USAFL, and while it might be a world away from the MCG, they’re part of a grassroots footy community taking hold across the US.
Stefan Barr, coach of the Austin Crows, is originally from Portland, Victoria.
For Mr Barr, who’s lived in the US for almost a decade, USAFL is a way to feel connected to home.
But the league is not just made up of expats; in line with USAFL rules, a team can only field nine Australian players at a time.
“The idea of that is to grow the game of football and ensure it doesn’t just end up being Australians playing against each other,” Mr Barr said.
Community sport for adults
One of the appeals of footy in the US, Mr Barr says, is that it provides an opportunity for adults to play competitive sport at a community level.
“For Americans, you either play at a high school level or at collegial level and then your career could be finished at the age of 18 or 22,” he told ABC local radio.
“For us Aussies, community sport is very important you play into your 30s if you can.”
USAFL media manager Brian Barrish says he’s aware of other adult community sporting opportunities in his home city of Philadelphia, but what sets Aussie Rules apart is the club atmosphere and camaraderie which extends beyond the game itself.
USAFL has been around for nearly 25 years, and this year 50 clubs were registered.
Almost half of the clubs have men and women’s squads. The Colorado Centennial Tigers and the Minnesota North Star Blue Ox are just for women.
While some team names are nods to AFL clubs – like the Milwaukee Bombers or the New York Magpies – others are distinctly American like the Fort Lauderdale Fighting Squids, the Houston Lonestars and the Little Rock Coyotes.
Political protest and COVID
Once a year enthusiasts come together for the USAFL Nationals, a two-day tournament which often attracts more than 1000 players, umpires and volunteers, making it one of the largest Aussie Rules gatherings in the world.
This year numbers were down, with around 760 players, representing 37 clubs, meeting in Austin, Texas last weekend.
Mr Barrish said concerns around COVID, as well as a decision by some women’s teams to boycott this year’s event due to the new abortion ban in Texas, led to the smaller turnout.
“In September, several clubs … demanded, that the league consider moving or cancelling the carnival due not only to the SB8 [abortion] law, but also because of concerns [around] availability of emergency care in light of the COVID situation,” Mr Barrish said.
Mr Barrish said moving the event from Texas was not possible.
“Many players exercised this option by wearing purple armbands.”
For Heather Serpico, who has been playing footy for eight years, at three different clubs across the US, the tournament is usually an opportunity to reunite with old friends and teammates.
“As a woman who firmly believes ‘my body, my choice’, but also loves Texas and footy, it was particularly hard to see so many of my mates have to make the difficult choice to not attend this year,” she said.
Ms Serpico says she was introduced to Aussie Rules by a chance encounter with a New York Magpies player in a Brooklyn bar.
“She said, ‘you look like you play sports; you should check this out’,” Ms Serpico said.
But a lack of private health insurance kept her from trying the contact sport immediately.
She gave it a go after securing a job that provided health insurance and has played ever since.
But it is the kind of “crazy” she loves, and it is the camaraderie of the “obscure” sport which she enjoys most.
“Personally, I find empowerment through footy,” she said.
“Women empower women, both on the footy field and in life.”
‘Favourite sport I’ve ever seen in my entire life’
As a coach, Mr Barr enjoys seeing non-Australians bring a different flair and interpretation to the game.
“The exciting thing is they do things in games that we as Australians would never consider,” he said.
Simon Boyce another Australian in the USAFL, originally from Mildura, says his teammates often comment that Aussie Rules is a combination of the best aspects of other sports and enjoy its diverse positions which allow players of all sizes to thrive.
It was a sentiment echoed by Americans, comically expressed in this tweet by ex-American football star Pat McAfee, who stumbled upon AFL in March 2020 when it was broadcast live on a major US sporting channel after the pandemic forced a pause in most US sports.
Currently, the USAFL does support several junior footy initiatives, but nothing on a large scale, Mr Barrish said.
“Eventually [junior football is] going to need to be a priority if we’re going to grow more successful footballers that can improve the quality of our league, plus challenge players back in Australia,” he said.
Meanwhile, the biggest challenge for USAFL is finding fields big enough for a game. There are no cricket ovals in the US’ tournament games are usually played across several soccer fields with makeshift goals pegged into the ground.