Land of Opportunity or American Dream? AFL's U.S. conundrum

For a league that has long pined for exposure and relevance overseas -- including more-miss-than-hit pushes into South Africa, India, New Zealand and China, as well as semi-regular International Rules clashes against Ireland -- the AFL may be facing a perfect opportunity to gain some sort of traction in the United States.

But in a world sporting landscape that has been turned on its head due to the coronavirus pandemic, Australia's biggest domestic code is being torn in two directions as it ponders any potential push into the U.S.

The most pressing situation is of course navigating its way through the uncharted waters of the coronavirus pandemic; the league and its clubs on thin financial ice and facing daunting challenges none could ever have predicted.

But the Australian sport may be in a position to take advantage of a golden opportunity to gain some sort of long-term traction in the U.S. for the first time.

In March this year, thanks to luck rather than design, the AFL enjoyed a spike in interest in the U.S. as its opening round continued after most other leagues had already shut down.

The likes of Pat McAfee -- a former NFL punter and now broadcaster, podcast host and social media influencer with 1.8million Twitter followers -- stumbled upon the sport via a late night telecast and immediately labelled Aussie rules "the best thing that could ever have been made" and "maybe my favourite sport I've seen in my entire life."

For a moment, the AFL basked in the golden glow of foreign interest, with sports fans on the other side of the planet discovering Australia's version of football. The surge only lasted one weekend, however, as the AFL was forced to shut up shop due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That interest may rise again with the AFL just one week away from its season resumption while major U.S. leagues still face a lengthy process to start up again.

Of course, this opportunity is juxtaposed by the AFL's current financial struggles, with every single dollar crucial for the league and its clubs.

So, what if anything should the AFL do if it is to realise its American Dream?

ESPN has broken down the three key areas of the AFL's possible push into the U.S. - the broadcast battle, talent pathway and boots on the ground.

The AFL declined to comment when approached by ESPN for this piece.

Broadcasting

The AFL's quest for a foothold in the U.S. has received a boost, with the league signing a deal with ESPN to broadcast two games per week on American television for the rest of the season, but it may be a surprise to some that the AFL actually has a historical link to American television via ESPN.

In the late 1980s, ESPN did not boast the rights to major sports, so the fledgling network scrambled to fill its airwaves with just about anything it could find. Eventually, the-then VFL was signed for a paltry fee, with highlights screened late at night to a confused but curious U.S. audience.

Former ESPN stalwart Bob Ley -- who joined the network just three days after its 1979 launch and retired as one of its longest-serving employees at the end of June 2019 -- was part of the team that brought Australian rules onto American television screens. He said the frenetic, free-flowing action and brutal physical contact appealed to many viewers, as well as a cultural curiosity of this strange sport played a million miles away.

"Television is all about pictures, and it [Aussie rules] is a great, great spectacle," Ley told the 'US Revolution' podcast, hosted by ESPN freelance journalist Shannon Gill, Collingwood's U.S. success story Mason Cox and American broadcaster Ed Wyatt. "That moment, in the early 80s, it was just a cultural and programming sweet spot.

"We'd have it on in the newsroom ... and it's almost like a Pavlovian response - you'd have a baseball, or [NFL] football or basketball game and people would be busy getting stuff done but inevitably people would spend half their time watching the Australian rules football! Marveling the perceived violence, the imagery or just the thought 'this is pretty insane'!"

"[Aussie rules] never fails to bring a smile to your face."

That was then. Now the Australian sport has long since disappeared from ESPN's screens after the network grew into a global powerhouse, having gained broadcast rights to major U.S. and international sports.

But even in the midst of a worldwide health and economic crisis, the AFL should again push for exposure in the U.S. That's the opinion of Craig Hutchison, former AFL journalist and now managing director of Pacific Star Network and Crocmedia, who boasts an extensive knowledge and passion for American sports and business.

While acknowledging the financial difficulties currently facing the AFL, he is adamant it must strike now while there is some momentum.

"The opportunity is now. If we [the AFL] don't do it, someone else will do it - there's going to be a period of time from June to September where they [Americans] will be starved of sport," Hutchison tells ESPN. "It's only a few weeks ago that Korean baseball was going crazy in the States. Getting the content into the vacant hours of television in the next three months will be fantastic - if there are ways to do it, they should do it.

"The argument will be the resources are better spent here, which is understandable and I have empathy for those [affected by the shutdown] but there's ... no better time to try than now."

Hutchison believes the AFL's key focus must be on getting its product in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

"The challenge is distribution," he says. "Most Americans I speak to say 'I used to love that back in the day on ESPN' ... then clearly in Round 1, we saw it again with no volume of American sports on. What that says to me is, if we can get it on TV in America and distributed, it will be well received and help grow a global audience for our game.

"If [the AFL] can get content distributed on any channels in the States then they should, as the better the distribution, the greater the chance of success. Play the long game.

"It's the greatest game in the world - [the problem] is just not many people know about it. The AFL can still look after Australia and also have an overseas strategy. That overseas strategy has been more into putting money into the [recruitment of] players -- the Mason Cox story is fantastic -- but I still think the fundamental challenge is an easy one to solve - get the game distributed."

Talent pathway

Cox is of course the poster boy for U.S. talent in the AFL, having played 59 games for Collingwood after first signing in mid-2014. He followed in the footsteps of former St Kilda ruckman Jason Holmes, who was the first born and bred American to play a senior AFL match in 2015.

They were both recruited via the AFL's international combine in America - an annual talent search that largely looked to recruit college basketballers, footballers and soccer players who miss out on professional contracts in their chosen sports. The AFL had travelled to the U.S. every year from 2012 to 2018, but then scrapped the event.

It's unclear whether it will be re-established but what is beyond question is the wealth of athletic talent in the U.S.

Sydney premiership coach Paul Roos, who played 356 games with the Swans and Fitzroy Lions before embarking on his coaching journey, is emphatic the AFL has erred in not going harder at recruiting American athletes. He began traveling to the U.S. in the late 1980s and met his American wife Tami during one offseason trip, with the couple spending a year living together in the States in 1999 once Roos' playing career drew to a close.

He quickly noticed a huge percentage of college athletes quit sport if they were unable to forge professional careers. Because of this, Roos says the AFL would be crazy not to find a way to harness the huge depth of unfulfilled American talent, which would be easier to mine than Gaelic footballers from Ireland.

"The difference between recruiting the Irish guys [vs. the U.S. athletes] is, you had to pick the LeBron James of Ireland to bring him out as a young kid, and it's really hard to do that, to pick their best players and bring them over, whereas in America, the talent is so vast. We [the AFL industry] knew we couldn't go out and pick up a Kevin Durant or LeBron James, but we didn't have to," he told the US Revolution podcast.

"In 1999, I remember thinking '[they are] elite athletes and fundamentally at [about] 23, they had nowhere to play, nothing to do and it [was unbelievable] how talented these players were, in terms of their raw athleticism'.

"You can't turn back time, but the sky would have been the limit if we had've started [recruiting] in 1999 ... I've got no doubt every AFL club would have an American playing now. So in that regard, it's really about how passionate the AFL are about doing it - it's nothing to do with the talent, but obviously the challenge now is, with the virus, the funding, the two teams coming in [Giants and Suns] and more pressure on developing talent in Australia [it's hard].

"The game sells itself, the athletes [in the U.S.] sell themselves but it's whether you can put two and two together and make it work."

Cox believes a wave of talent would follow him from across the Pacific if the AFL provided an appropriate pathway.

"[There is] A huge, huge opportunity [for the AFL to harness talent in the U.S.]," he told the US Revolution podcast. "Whenever I retire ... hopefully there's an avenue for me to go into the AFL and start recruiting over there."

Boots on the ground

Almost a quarter of a century after the-then VFL hosted exhibition games in Miami and Portland respectively in 1988 and 89, top-level Aussie rules may again be played on American soil if a bold plan by Essendon and GWS comes to fruition.

Earlier this year, it was revealed the Bombers and Giants were planning to play a game for premiership points on the west coast of America, which would make the U.S. the third nation beyond Australia to host a game, following New Zealand in 2013 and China in 2017.

Those discussions have now been put on the backburner due to the coronavirus pandemic, although ESPN understands both clubs are still determined to explore the idea when travel and financial variables are clearer, with 2022 earmarked for the first U.S. clash.

But will anyone in the U.S. care, aside from excited Australian expats?

Brian Barrish, media manager of the USAFL -- a non-profit amateur organisation dedicated to the development of and participation in Australian football in the U.S. -- believes that while the sport is still very much niche in America, there is a real opportunity for growth.

He says approximately 2,000 amateurs play at 46 member clubs in the USAFL league, with the national team a regular competitor at the AFL's International Cup - a competition for men's and women's teams from around the globe (this year's event was scheduled to be played on the Sunshine Coast in July-August, but has been rescheduled).

Barrish, who discovered AFL as a teenager in 1995 when he stumbled across a highlights show while channel surfing, believes more exposure is needed in an American sporting landscape completely dominated by the major domestic codes.

"We got a lot of response during Round 1 because the matches were on Fox Sports 1, which is on most of the basic cable plans across the country. But we have had people reach out and say that they've 'fallen down the rabbit hole' from highlight videos," Barrish told ESPN.

"We have had people who have expressed interest [in playing, after watching the Round 1 action] - many of them have reached out to teams directly. Obviously it's been difficult because there's nothing really going on [due to the coronavirus shutdown], but I do know that some of the teams have gotten inquiries as to how they can get involved when the season resumes.

"I think it's going to take more exposure and more investment than what's been given up to now. There of course is this talk of an Essendon-GWS match in LA either next year or beyond, and I still think it's a good idea even with the logistical puzzles that come with it.

"There needs to be a strong ad campaign around whatever locale is decided upon, and it also needs to be at a time and on a channel that is readily available to the most American viewers. There also has to be a strong message that there is already a solid and sustainable grass roots program (the USAFL) established."