Football in Australia? - A recap of watching Cal football in Sydney

(Photo by Travis Rowney)

By Travis Rowney | @rowtown23

When September rolls around, the typical American sports fan looks forward to one thing…football. Despite recent controversy regarding concussions, it remains this country’s most popular game. We look forward every weekend (or even Monday and Thursday!) to our favorite couch or armchair and watch the battles unfold. If we are ambitious enough, we even suffer through traffic and outrageous prices at concession stands to attend a game in person.

It’s an American invention, but football is rapidly expanding, and becoming popular around the world. The last couple of years, the NFL has played games all over the world, including England, Germany, Ireland, and Mexico. This reporter recently had the unique experience of attending a football game in Sydney, Australia, that city’s first encounter with the “Gridiron.”

One fact about Australians we should get out of the way: They are sports crazy! In fact, they have four types of “football.” Their national sport of course is rugby. But there are two variations of rugby in Australia: Rugby Union, and Rugby League. Very different games according to the Aussies. Then there’s Australian Rules Football, a game that looks terribly exciting, but nobody seems to understand, not even the Australians. And of course, soccer, which, like most other countries, is often called football. According to one native, “We love it, but we’re terrible at it…”

So what about real football, like American football? As I said earlier, the game is expanding, as the world shrinks. In late August, the University of California Golden Bears took on the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors in the inaugural College Football Sydney Cup. This is the first time that Sydney has hosted any type of American Football Game. Was it a success? Well, you can ask the 61,000 people in attendance. While it wasn’t quite the NFL, Aussies were looking forward to this event with enthusiasm, promoting it as the “The College Football Championship Kickoff.”

(Photo by Travis Rowney)

The game took place at ANZ stadium in Sydney, the same stadium used for the 2000 Summer Olympics. It is now used for all professional rugby, soccer, Aussie football and cricket teams based in Sydney. The stadium has a capacity of 84,000. You can get there by Sydney’s excellent train system, using special “supporter” routes, or by car. There was a huge pregame party next to the stadium at an outdoor bar and patio. This is where all of the tailgating happened. Aussies typically don’t tailgate, at least not for their sports. However, it seemed that everyone was having a great time socializing and enjoying cold beer.

While there were a small sample of Cal and Hawaii fans making the trip, the vast majority of the crowd was Australian. For them, it must have been “American Day” as you could see virtually every NFL team jersey represented, and a fair sampling of the NBA as well. Of course, the most popular jersey was the Jarryd Hayne 49ers jersey. Hayne is an Australian rugby icon who played one year with San Francisco. The promoters tried bringing the atmosphere of an American football game to the concession stands as well, selling “American style” food.  One of the most popular items were hot dogs that were two feet long! (Funny, I’ve never seen anything like those dogs at any football or baseball game in the states!). 

The best description of the game atmosphere would be “festive,” contrasting with the rapid obsession of fans at a game here. Most of the people didn’t understand the subtle rules or strategies of the game…there was a strange silence in the stadium on important 3rd and 4th down plays. As my small section of Cal fans were on our feet for the first crucial 4th and 1, Aussies seemed to look at us in wonder, “Relax…. here’s your beer mate. Cheers!”  So very different from the most recent Cal game I attended against Texas last Saturday (you could hardly hear yourself think in those crucial 3rd downs late in the game…). But they did understand touchdowns (a “try” in rugby) and loved the Cal cannon after each Bear score. It was fun for us experienced “footballers” talking to the friendly Aussies; explaining the rules and penalties and comparing sports backgrounds. Now the “wave”, they understood. Rarely does a full stadium do a wave in unison back in the states. The Aussies have mastered it. Is it possible the Australians are one of the few peoples in the world that actually like us? 

Of course, not all is wonderful about playing so far from home. It’s a long, long, flight; 14 ½ hours from San Francisco to be exact. Leaving late Saturday night, the Cal team arrived in Sydney early Monday morning.  What happened to Sunday? The “red-eyes” after the flight were evident, although the Cal coaching staff did all kinds of tricks to get the players acclimated, including exercises on the plane, and a practice on Monday right after arriving. Then there is the logistics of transporting the entire team (Cal took everyone, not the normal travel roster), staff and equipment. Not to mention that every single player on both teams had to get passports and visas. As Cal head Coach Sunny Dykes said, “That was awful.” While the arrangements were not easy, both teams managed to get there in one piece. However, nobody arrived to California and Hawaiian sunshine. Our summer in the states is actually winter in Australia. However, the football gods blessed us, and game day weather could not have been more perfect. High 60s, blue skies, hardly a cloud.

So football in Australia was quite a success. The big city of Sydney was a fantastic venue for the start of football season. It begs the question whether an NFL game should be played in Australia. This reporter emphatically thinks so. The Aussies would go crazy, and Sydney seems to have the fans and infrastructure. Supposedly, they are bidding for the 2017 Pro Bowl, but a regular season game would be fun too. After witnessing the success of college football in Australia, imagine what the NFL can do. Hopefully, it will happen sooner than later.  Good on ya, mate!