The AFL's quest for a foothold in the United States 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.
Just days after the AFL signed an extended domestic broadcast agreement, the league will now be shown on U.S. television via ESPN2 and ESPN3. The first match broadcast was Friday night's [AEST] Geelong-Hawthorn clash on ESPN2. Sunday's Sydney-Essendon game at the SCG will be streamed on ESPN3.
A total of 34 AFL games across 17 weeks will be showcased on the U.S. network, as well as finals, with commentary and graphics to come from the host broadcaster.
Australian rules football was a staple in ESPN's early years, when the network was unable to secure rights to major American leagues. The network aired Aussie rules games from 1979 to 1985, with the league gaining a cultlike following in the U.S. ESPN2 also broadcast the AFL from 1996-97 and 2010-11.
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 in 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."
The AFL gained some exposure in the U.S. in March, when the opening round of the season continued despite most leagues across the globe already shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Pat McAfee -- a former NFL punter and now a broadcaster, podcast host and social media influencer -- stumbled upon the sport via a late-night telecast and immediately labelled Aussie rules "the best thing that could ever have been made." McAfee continued his support when the AFL returned on Thursday night for the Collingwood-Richmond contest, which ended in a thrilling draw.