In recent times we have seen the reemergence of footy teams in Florida. Last year the Jacksonville Saints were fully established and this year they brought several players to the USAFL Eastern Regionals to play with eventual Division 2 winners, the Boston Demons. The new Saints team also played with the Atlanta Kookaburras and Rome Redbacks in an exhibition game in Savannah Georgia in late June as those teams assist with team development in Georgia.
Apart from that activity we wrote recently about maybe the darkness footy has been in recently in Florida. So we reached out to a few leaders of the new Tampa Bay Tiger Sharks club to get their side of things.
Tampa Bay Tiger Sharks have affiliated recently with the USAFL after the implosion of the Major League Footy organization. An organization we were informed that was being run basically by just one person. Several players in the Tampa area were becoming disillusioned with the MLF set up, as it was to them just scrimmage games with no real competition. Players would come down, pull on a different uniform each week however the results would be posted on the league website for whatever team colors they represented as legitimate games. “There were games versus Ft Lauderdale as well but they were not very well organized”, new club leader Robbie Scarallo said recently.
Born in Dubbo Australia, Robbie Scarallo and others like former Columbus Cats players Tom Mathews and Claire Conley recently formed a provisional committee to restart footy in the Tampa region. After the press release of the USAFL recently and the design of their new logo coming with that news, Scarallo said “I am confident a brand new “voted in” board of management would be in place by the end of July. Currently we have ‘around' 20 players we hope to get out onto the practice field from the past MLF group, however early numbers are much lower than that.”
Other plans have also been discussed about also splitting into to local metro teams quickly so the club can immediately play competitive games without having to travel far. Tampa although a very large city the Tiger Sharks are still a long way away from any other USAFL club. Ft Lauderdale is 4 hour drive away on a good day and Jacksonville is 3.5 hours as well, so establishing rival teams inside their own city is probably a must do.
With the USAFL National Championships just a 1 hour drive south to Sarasota this October the Tampa Bay leaders are confident they will have enough players and enthusiasm to again have a team playing in the biggest footy event outside of Australia.
Probably the next point of interest will be to see if Ft Lauderdale can also regroup and fully return to the footy fold and if any other clubs can be started in Florida, especially one maybe in the central Florida region like Orlando. That would benefit all the other clubs in the Florida state greatly at the same time.
Headlines were made in the AFL community recently when Greater Western Sydney CEO David Matthews spoke openly about the Giants potentially playing a match for premiership points in the United States. In comments made to The Age, Matthews admitted that he had been in related talks with both the AFL itself and Tourism Australia to see if such a game would be feasible.
"Our preference would be a premiership game,” Matthews stated. “That said, like a lot of clubs, we're in discussions with the AFL about their aspirations for AFLX."
"The USA is an attractive prospect based on their love of sport, connection to Australia and their status as a significant trading partner," said the AFL’s David Stevenson.
If a match were played in the USA, it would have to be in a large city such as Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. The obvious lack of American cricket ovals would likely be the biggest obstacle. As recently as 2006, the AFL staged a preseason match between Sydney and North Melbourne in LA (at the UCLA intramural sports field), but it drew lackluster numbers. Other American cities that have hosted AFL or VFL matches in the past include San Francisco, Portland and Miami.
There is certainly enough grassroots enthusiasm in the US for a footy match to be played, both among Americans in the USAFL and in the Aussie expat community. Even AFL legends such as former Essendon and GWS coach Kevin Sheedy have thrown their support behind the idea. In addition, the Australian ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, has been a key patron of the USAFL for many years. With that being said, the logistical challenges would be great and the AFL might quickly soften on the concept if it isn’t done the right way.
The history of the AFL staging international matches has been mixed. Back in 2013, the St Kilda Football Club first pioneered the idea of taking premiership matches overseas -- specifically an Anzac Day match at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. The idea only lasted three years and was eventually put on hiatus due to dwindling crowd numbers and a lack of stadium availability. The Saints’ board hasn’t given up on its NZ dreams though, talking to officials in Auckland about potentially staging a game there as recently as 2016.
The more notable international match in recent seasons has come from Port Adelaide, which “hosts” the annual Shanghai clash. First played in 2017 against the Gold Coast Suns, Port has managed to get valuable exposure in China, one of the biggest markets for sports, but the games still haven’t always drawn the expected attendance figures, earning criticism from some corners of the Aussie media.
One positive that the USAFL can draw from the China experiment is that fact that AFL Asia has benefited from being able to host curtain-raiser matches before the Port game. If a game were to be played for premiership points on US soil, the USAFL would surely take advantage and attempt to organize a tournament accordingly. Similarly to China, the pleasant American summer weather would be a draw as well.
Again, the elephant in the room is the absence of quality cricket ovals. The only American oval recognized by the International Cricket Council is the Central Broward Regional Park (CBRP) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The USAFL used the complex for the 2015 49th Parallel Cup (the clash between the US and Canadian national teams) and it was purposely built to host cricket matches. With a capacity of 20,000, it could draw a quality crowd for, say, an AFL preseason match. Given that the AFL has proven somewhat cautious about international expansion in the past, a preseason game would be a good way to test the American waters. Many Aussie expats and US fans alike would be keen to make the trip to Florida to watch. However, flights from Australia itself would be dauntingly expensive and the AFL itself has implied that a West Coast-based game would be preferable.
Apart from the CBRP, most of the American ovals are either privately-owned and difficult to book, not large enough to support a crowd of thousands, lack high-quality turf, or all of the above. If the CBRP isn’t available, the best option would be to commission a baseball stadium or gridiron field and turn it into an AFL oval for one day.
New York could be an option, as they have both Gaelic fields and college intramural complexes that could be temporarily converted. Having lived in LA previously, I know that there’s no shortage of quality fields, but the ability to actually schedule a match there would be challenging. Stadiums such as the Rose Bowl and the LA Coliseum would probably be skeptical unless they could guarantee a solid crowd, and it’s highly unlikely that Dodger Stadium would allow anything non-baseball related to be played there over the summer.
One tantalizing option could be Hawai’i. Aloha Stadium, best known for hosting the NFL’s Pro Bowl, seats 50,000 people and is going to be redeveloped in the next few years. Flights would be much cheaper from Australia to Hawai’i (as opposed to the mainland US) and the local media would probably be enthusiastic about it. In addition, a game in Hawai’i could also serve as an opportunity to showcase AFL in the rugby-crazy Pacific.
Wherever the location is, I just hope that the AFL Commission gives the project its due diligence. A game staged in America could be a massive boon for the sport on both sides of the Pacific, but I just hope that the AFL is willing to listen and give full support. The bottom line is that there’s more than enough enthusiasm from all parties to make the event a success. We’ll just have to see where it goes.
The USAFL National Championships are going back to Sarasota Florida for the second time. The beach-side resort city first hosted the biggest Australian Rules Football Tournament in the world in 2016, but since then a lot has happened, some of that controversial maybe, in the Sunshine state in regards to Aussie Rules football development.
After the last Nationals there in 2016 we saw the emergence of an organization called Major League Footy (MLF). The new League was based around the concept of semi professional players playing 9 a side games, similar to what the AFL had started in Australia with the AFLX concept. The main team within their armory was the St Pete Swans, a registered USAFL team who had played in the 2016 National Championships.
The website and social media of Major League Footy grew overnight it seemed, to sometimes 20 + teams apparently located around the USA as far north as Pittsburg PA and as far west as Los Angeles California. To many people around USAFL circles this development was fanciful at best and for some, basically pure fantasy.
The MLF development moved on however, they recruited the St Pete players and those outside or around Tampa and the Ft Lauderdale Squid players on the other side of the Florida peninsula. In January 2018 the USAFL released a statement delisting the St Pete Swans organization from their ranks, basically saying the MLF business model no longer fit with the USAFL's not for profit stance, and as the AFL sanctioned leader of the sport in the USA, the St Pete Swans and MLF organizations were not to be considered part of the USAFL in any way.
From then on the Florida players and teams went somewhat underground and also under the radar it seemed. Games were played between rival teams around Florida according to their website, however reports were that they were the same 20 players just pulling on different uniforms each week, pretending to be opposing teams. From the outside it appeared to people to be like a Ponzi scheme to attract money from sponsors without legitimate teams and without regard for real or actual development of the sport. Social Media and photos of the games were rare, no team photos, and rare player or game reports.
Many of the Ft Lauderdale team players allegedly played in a team called the Miami Saints in this MLF competition whilst several were still registered as USAFL players and then also played in the 2017 & 2018 National Championships without playing any full sanctioned USAFL games during those years. So it seemed the USAFL were hoping to ignore most of what was going, leaving it under the carpet so to speak, in the hope it would just fade away.
And that did just happen just recently in June. In mid June 2019 the entire Social Media accounts of all MLF teams and all websites disappeared, just like they were never there in the first place. A new team seeking affiliation with the USAFL bobbed up in Tampa Florida called the Tampa Bay Tiger Sharks (and were admitted) and were hastily given the green light by the USAFL to send players to the exhibition game in Savannah Georgia in late June. This game was organized by three registered USAFL clubs, the Atlanta Kookaburras, Rome Redbacks and Jacksonville Saints.
In past weeks we also have seen the re-emergence of the Ft Lauderdale Squids on Social Media, apparently under their own steam and not shared posts by a volunteer elsewhere in Florida. So things are looking up for footy in Florida again hopefully.
Will it last?, maybe only the sun, earth and the moon might know right now, but footy is heading back to one of the best locations for the game in October, Sarasota Florida. Even if footy in the area has a recent dark past, it is sure to be a great time come October.