Football Down Under: What Does the Future Hold for NFL in Australia?

Sean TomlinsonNFL AnalystJuly 2, 2015

Getty Images

At 9 a.m. AEST on Feb. 2, Jason Duerden opened his bar to start the Super Bowl XLIX celebration.

By 10 a.m. about 350 people were inside, with another 50 or so waiting in line. At 10:30 a.m., when the NFL's 2015 marquee game kicked off, roughly 400-500 people were rubbing elbows while dressed in their New England Patriots or Seattle Seahawks colors, including wildly elaborate face paint.

Everything there sounds typical for a Super Bowl Sunday. It all seems perfectly normal and routine. Everything except the time and date.

That's because in Sydney, Australia, you can watch the American version of football while sipping on a morning brew, be it coffee or the adult beverage of your choosing.

About 400-500 people packed The Light Brigade in Sydney to watch Super Bowl XLIX
About 400-500 people packed The Light Brigade in Sydney to watch Super Bowl XLIXPhoto courtesy of Jason Duerden

If you haven't visited Australia, there could be assumptions etched in your mind through images. Like, say, the jacked-up, metal-bucket-crushing kangaroo. That's natural with a far-off land that's an ocean and about a 20-hour flight away from the United States, the NFL's native country.

This may also be on your list of Australian assumptions: American football doesn't have much traction half a world away, even with Jarryd Hayne trying to make the San Francisco 49ers roster.

That's an understandable conclusion since Australia has its own football, and rugby—which gave Hayne his superstar status—has a passionate following, too. It's also wrong.

Duerden started showing and promoting the Super Bowl four years ago, knowing that drawing a Monday-morning crowd Australian time could be difficult. Now there are people waiting to get in.

"It's one of our biggest days of the year," the manager of the Light Brigade told Bleacher Report. "People don't go to work just to come to the pub and watch the Super Bowl."

There's a minor title tweak in Australia, with the sport often referred to as either American football or gridiron football to separate it from Aussie Rules Football. The title matters less, however, than the growing recent interest.

An area of the world that can't be much farther away from the NFL's homeland is buzzing, with TV ratings spiking to an all-time high and a college bowl game nearly finalized for Melbourne in 2016.

That's only the surface, and here's what lies below: Australia is getting its own professional football league. Gridiron football, to be clear.

 

Football is growing as an Australian professional sport

The NFL isn't new to Australia, and more broadly, neither is American football. There are roughly 70 amateur teams that play in state leagues, all run through Gridiron Australia, the government-approved sports association officially formed in 1996.

Gridiron Australia is where the sport's seed is planted. Chris Guscott is a Gridiron Australia reporter and sees the state leagues as a strong foundation. There are American coaches who have shared their knowledge and experience, and now it's clear Australia is ready for something more.

The next step is a homegrown professional league for homegrown talent.

"There's a whole history of people trying to start a professional gridiron league in Australia because they know there's such an open market for it," said Guscott. "They know if there's money and exposure it could take off, because the interest is here.

"It's still very grassroots, and we need a lot of manpower to get it all going. It's an iffy time right now, to say the least. We're almost at the point where you can break the barrier."

Marcin Soluch is in the process of vaulting over that wall.

Soluch is a managing partner of the National Gridiron League, which is the latest attempt at making professional football in Australia more than mere talk and dreaming.

The league has a firm grounding, with eight teams (initially nine, but one was removed for scheduling purposes) clustered around Australia's East Coast and set to participate in a 16-game regular-season schedule beginning in August 2016, with expansion plans for Melbourne by 2017. It also has a growing list of players signed to contracts, most of whom have college football experience at the NCAA Division I or Division II levels.

Some—like former UNLV tight end Taylor Barnhill, who signed with Gold Coast—are fresh from their college playing days and either went undrafted or have already been released from an NFL roster. Others—like former Michigan State defensive back Roderick Jenrette of the Brisbane Outlaws—are a few years removed from the American college stage but still bring that background.

The NGL will offer another outlet for players to pursue football professionally as a career. Each team will have a minimum of 10 Australian players on the roster.

"The NFL and CFL are at capacity," Soluch said to Bleacher Report during a phone conversation. "There's a severe oversupply of players, and we can capitalize on that. We can pick up pretty good talent for virtually very little money."

And for Australian football fans, the NGL will make the sport more accessible on a national platform. It will ideally develop into a product that aims to compete with the NFL for the country's football attention.

"Our vision is to be able to offer players careers," said Soluch. "How much we can compete with the NFL is a different story. Do we really want to compete directly with the NFL? Probably not, but by default we will. At the end of the day, there's X amount of people who want to watch football."

The committed NGL head coaches have extensive experience, too. They include Danny Hawkins, the former college head coach (Boise State, Colorado) who briefly held the same position with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes. There's also Jeff Woodruff, who was the head coach at Eastern Michigan for four seasons.

The NGL will have a distinctly American feel, with money as the only exception. NFL rookies are paid a minimum of $435,000, while Soluch said NGL players will be in approximately the same pay bracket as their CFL counterparts, a league where the rookie minimum is about $50,000.

A wage divide has grown over time, which has resulted in an opportunity for Soluch.

"Because the NFL is unionized, there's a massive minimum salary everyone is aiming for," Soluch said. "That draws a lot of athletes.

"It's creating the oversupply environment. The big thing is, other than the NFL, there's nothing in between. The AFL [Australian Football League] pays very little, and the CFL doesn't pay huge amounts of money. It pays here and there well but, generally, not really. So there's a massive gap."

You're forgiven if Soluch's ideas of gap-bridging and need-filling seem optimistic at first as he works with an American-based game, trying to capitalize on foreign interest. But then when you speak to another businessman in Australia, as I did, it becomes clear that grand football ambitions aren't unique to just one enterprising mind.

Let's meet Paul Sergeant, then. He also sees a pleasant marriage between American football and a sports-hungry Australian audience.

 

Football is growing as an Australian event

Sergeant is the CEO of Melbourne Stadiums Limited, which owns and operates Etihad Stadium in Melbourne. The venue seats just over 53,000, which is a modest capacity compared to some American football cathedrals.

But never mind that number, because here's a different one: Etihad Stadium is more than 10,000 miles away from America, and Sergeant's goal is to have it buzzing with the standard lunacy of a college bowl game while filled to capacity.

Etihad Stadium seats just over 53,000.
Etihad Stadium seats just over 53,000.Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

"I'm terribly confident," Sergeant said when asked if he thinks his venue can be filled for American college football. "I think it'll be one of the hottest tickets in town.

"I think the following of American football—be it college football or the NFL—is growing in Australia. We're fortunate on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday mornings to get games live here and at a great time. They start at breakfast time and go right through to lunch time, which is fantastic."

Sergeant has been in negotiations for nearly two years with Pac-12 and Mountain West conference officials. An agreement isn't quite finalized yet, and Sergeant gave the standard disclaimer, saying nothing is official until there's "ink on paper."

But it certainly sounds like pen will meet paper soon.

"In the not-too-distant future—and maybe in the next few months—we'd like to be in a position to say yes, we have a commitment."

When Sergeant can finally and officially announce that, he'll be making history. He will have given Australia its first college football game.

Forget that we're not talking about the NFL here and that those in Etihad Stadium will likely be watching a lesser bowl game.

Every college bowl game is part of the pageantry and spectacle that is football in America. It's the game at one of its highest stages, and Sergeant's tireless work to bring that football atmosphere—complete with mascots and cheerleaders—to a different continent is a shining example of just how much the Australian thirst for American football has grown.

Sergeant is in the business of sports entertainment. He hasn't entered into this lightly or without research. He's assessed the Australian sports landscape and determined that, yes, there's significant demand for an American football spotlight.

But his plans don't end there. They stretch beyond 2016, with aspirations for an annual event.

"We want to have an annual bowl game that can be turned into a week-long experience," he said. "It'll be an experience for the student-athletes and a monumental achievement to come to a country like Australia and play a game they love."

Maybe at this point you're still doubting both Sergeant and Soluch, wondering where exactly they get their swagger and proof that a football audience in Australia is increasing in size. Well, the numbers speak for themselves.

 

Football is growing as an Australian televised sport

The growth of engaged Australian viewers watching football goes further than one Super Bowl sports bar anecdote.

ESPN Australia introduced the country to NFL RedZone for the first time in 2014, and that contributed to a historic ratings spike.

"ESPN Australia's 2014-15 NFL season ratings were our best ever, up 17 percent among all individuals and 40 percent among males aged 18-34," Emma Barnes, head of communications for ESPN Australia, told Bleacher Report in an email.

"On Monday mornings during the NFL season, ESPN ranked as the No. 1 cable network [in Australia] and No. 2 TV network overall for males ages 18-34."

That's only the latest sign of consistently booming TV viewership.

During the 2013 playoffs, ESPN's NFL coverage in Australia increased its audience by 39 percent, according to Kevin Perry of Nelbie, an Australian TV and entertainment website. Diving deeper into numbers that make those who sell things on TV smile, Perry also noted that overall Super Bowl ratings went up by 70 percent between 2011 and 2014. Even more impressively, Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014 drew a gargantuan 49.7 percent share of males ages 18-34.

Removed from percentages and ad speak, that particular demographic is commonly home to the sort of person who yells at televisions, pounds tables and sweats chicken-wing sauce. Men that age are often the most passionate breed of sports fan, and a movement is taking place when nearly half of the 18-34 male subscriber base is watching a football game.

The ultimate barometer of viewer interest, however, is the NFL's contract with Seven Network. While ESPN controls the subscription market, Seven Network is one of the country's largest free-to-air broadcasters.

In 2014, Seven Network assessed the blossoming NFL audience and decided to pursue a broadcast rights agreement with the NFL. The resulting five-year contract gives Seven Network three weekly games from the NFL's Sunday slate on its main network, and then Sunday Night Football on 7mate. The agreement also includes showcase games like the season opener and Thanksgiving Day matchups.

But it's the non-game content in Seven Network's contract that highlights just how much demand there is for football on Australian televisions. On 7mate, the network also shows Hard Knocks, A Football Life, Road to the Super Bowl, Road to the Playoffs and America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions.

It's a partnership that also includes Seven Network's digital platforms, which leads to yet another loud statement on Australia's craving for American football, coming courtesy of a press release when the contract was signed. Traffic volumes for NFL.com in Australia rank among the top five globally.

So there are plenty of Australian eyeballs following NFL football, and interest in playing is also spreading due to the influence of Hayne and Jesse Williams, a defensive tackle who was born on Thursday Island and raised in Brisbane before growing to become "Tha Monstar" at 6'3" and 325 pounds.

He was the first indigenous Australian to be given an NCAA football scholarship, and in 2013, the Seattle Seahawks selected Williams in the fifth round. He's now resumed workouts after cancer surgery.

Any level of success for the likes of Hayne and Williams will be viewed as a major victory for American football in Australia, because then even more people will flock to television screens, simply out of curiosity.

But the true next step lies in resources—both the human kind and the brick kind.

 

The future is…the NGL?

John Leijten has been the head coach of Australia's national American football team since 2010. In July, his roster of 45 players will compete in the fifth International Federation of American Football World Championship, this time held in Canton, Ohio.

Leijten, who also coaches the Dresden Monarchs in the German Football League, has noticed a steady skill progression over the past five years. The problem is maintaining a player's development, which is when issues tied to a lack of consistent high-quality coaching and dedicated football facilities become clear.

Australian football players don't have access to the same level of coaching they receive when they're either with the national team every four years or at a training camp. So the skills they acquire under Leijten's watch can gradually deteriorate.

The foundation and talent is there, but it needs to be massaged to reach the next level.

"The Australian kids aren't shy to make contact," said Leijten. "Sometimes in mainland Europe it's different, because there isn't a lot of contact sports. Australian kids, they’re all playing Aussie Rules Football, or Rugby League and Rugby Union, and they'll tackle a guy sideways and upside down. They'll make sure they make contact."

On the field, Australia's status as a punter factory is getting even stronger. The Pittsburgh Steelers currently have two Australians fighting to be their punter in 2015 (Brad Wing and Jordan Berry). That may become a more common scene, with Australian punters scattered throughout the college ranks, including 2014 Ray Guy Award-winner Tom Hackett from Utah.

Ben Graham logged 99 career games over eight seasons as an NFL punter and holds the distinction of being the first Australian to play in the Super Bowl (2009 while with the Arizona Cardinals). He was an Aussie Rules Football legend before making the NFL transition at age 32 and now believes a grassroots awareness of the American game in his home country has grown significantly.

"When I was approached and went over, there were questions raised about other AFL players going for other positions," Graham said of his first NFL experience in 2005. "And once I was immersed in the system, I knew what it was going to take and how hard it was going to be for someone to make the transition to a different position than a punter.

"But since then, and now with the number of Australian punters in college, along with the likes of Jesse Williams and Jarryd Hayne and some other players trying their hand at other positions, the growth and awareness of the game at a grassroots level in Australia has grown exponentially."

When Australian athletes don't come through the juggernaut college football feeder system, they're at an immediate developmental disadvantage, which brings us back to the NGL.

If a domestic professional league establishes itself over time, there will be an outlet to provide consistent coaching. American football will also be even more present in the public's eye, and that could prompt talented young athletes to gravitate toward the sport at a young age.

Through the NGL, American football in Australia can be advanced even further as both an athletic achievement and source of sports entertainment. From the television to the actual field, there appears to be a very real future Down Under for football and the NFL. When that growth materializes, Duerden's bar could have a rather American vibe more often.

"If you walked into our bar during the Super Bowl, you'd probably feel like you're at a bar in America."

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.