Part F of the April A-Z Blogging Challenge, where every day this month except Sundays, I'll be talking about things I love - one thing for each letter of the alphabet.
The year was 1997. I was five years old, having just started big-boy school two months ago, still living in our modest first house. I think we were having a small get-together, so my uncle and aunt were there, as well as my grandparents and possibly my cousins. It was a nice sunny day outside. But I wasn't outside at the time, I was inside. Wandering around with my child-like curiosity. I walked out of the kitchen where my mum was preparing food and into the lounge room to find my dad, my uncle and my aunt standing around TV. There was something happening on the TV that I'd never seen before. All I could discern was that a large group of adults were chasing a ball around. It was my first experience with Aussie Rules football.
Dad saw me enter the room and watch the screen with interest. He motioned to the team that was playing in singlets of black, white and teal.
'That's Port Adelaide,' he said, identifying the team. 'We go for them.'
'Okay,' I replied. It made perfect sense to me. As simple as that and for no greater reason, I fell in love with both the sport and the team. It remains my longest-lasting love.
Not all Aussie Rules Football fans (footy for short). Know where the game came from. It was actually invented by cricketers as a way to keep themselves fit over the winter. Being another sport Americans don't get, the simplest way to explain cricket is that it's like baseball, except there's only two bases and the runners keep running back and forth between those two bases and having more hits until they're out (which happens much less often than in baseball). Back in the 1850s, a cricketer named Tom Wills made a public statement declaring a need for such a sport and together, he and a small group of associates drafted a list of rules that were based on a variation of rugby that he used to play in boarding school in England. They then started up the Melbourne Football Club, and that first club is still around today and playing in the sport's highest level of competition, the AFL.
It's from this that I believe footy got part of its weird scoring system. At first there were just two goal posts and the first team to kick the ball through their posts won. As the skills got better and the games became too short, they changed it to a more standard time period and decreed that the highest score won. If the ball was kicked at the goals and missed, that was declared a "behind" (since the ball was now behind the goals) and someone from the other team would have to kick the ball back in from the spot it went out. At some point (I don't know when or why), two extra, smaller posts were placed on either side of the two larger posts. The new rule became if a player kicked the ball between the two big sticks, that would be a goal and their team would score six points. If the player kicked it between one of the big posts and one of the smaller posts, that would be a behind and the team would score just one point. My theory is that the reason a goal is worth six points is that in cricket, the highest score you can get in a single hit is 6 runs. This happens when the ball is hit over the boundary line without touching the ground. It also happens when a footy player kicks a goal. As for the behinds... there was once a joke from Irish-Australian comedian Jimeoin that footy's the only sport where they still give you a point for trying. Now that joke is used by people who follow the other big sport in Australia - rugby league - to point out why Aussie Rules is inferior.
The game is expending its influence very slowly, but surely. As I've mentioned, the highest footy competition in Australia is the AFL. In one way the AFL hasn't been around too long. In another, more accurate way, it's been there since the beginning. As the game was taking off around Australia, there were professional leagues in every state. I say professional, but there wasn't enough money in it to make it your full-time job. In Victoria, where the game started, there were two leagues competing for supremacy (much like the NFL and AFL had done in American Football back in the day). They were the Victorian Football Association and the Victorian Football League, the latter having broken off from the former after just a few years. The VFL became the bigger team after a while, but the defining moment in their battle came when one of the VFL's embattled clubs (South Melbourne) relocated to Sydney in 1982 to capitalise on a largely untapped market. This was the first time a football competition had expanded to multiple states. Over the next eight years, two more teams emerged - one from Brisbane and one from Perth. Now there were teams playing in four different states. So in 1990, the VFL rebranded itself as the Australian Football League and declared itself the first national footy competition, to which everyone else nodded and said "Makes sense." They added yet another team from my home town of Adelaide and that became the Adelaide Crows. There's a whole new story to that though. I went through it in a previous long-forgotten blog post. The VFA managed to survive though. It merged with another league as well as the new AFL reserves competition to become the new VFL.
Nowadays, there are two teams from every state outside Victoria. The AFL has managed to make a dent in the Queensland and New South Wales markets, where rugby league is still king. While games in the NRL (National Rugby League) get a ton more TV viewership in those states than AFL games, the Sydney Swans now consistently get higher numbers coming to their games than their NRL counterparts. The AFL also seems to be doing a great job of incorporating Australia's enormous migrant population into the game. I admit I can't give an accurate appraisal from my position as a second-generation white Australian, but I really like some of the initiatives they've come up with, such as streaming the commentary of the 2014 Grand Final in about 12 different languages on the internet. They also turned it into a competition to find civilians who could be trained up and become the commentators. As well as all that, there have been some feelers reached out into other countries. There's been a few regular-season AFL games played in New Zealand, and my team - Port Adelaide - has just brokered a deal to tap into the market in China. I don't know what the deal involves, but I'm pretty sure it involves playing the occasional game there. It's all happening. Very slowly, but it's happening.