It’s now 30 years since the founding of AFL London, which is regarded as the strongest competition “in terms player numbers and quality football” outside of Australia. However, to be frank, while the competition warrants some respect, it’s a bit like claiming to be the best sumo wrestling competition outside of Japan. It’s a league mainly for ex-pats that, unfortunately, doesn’t get much attention. Ask any random Londoner about it and they’d likely not only be able to name a player, but have difficulty naming a team too.
The overall relationship the British have with the sport is intriguing, albeit a little vague. If you say Australian footy or Australian football to a Brit, most would think you are talking about A-League soccer. “Aussie rules”, which permeated consciousness when the International Rules Series with the Irish GAA was at its height, is more likely to get a nod of acknowledgement.
Live games are easy to access
As for coverage of AFL, it’s actually pretty good. BT Sport – one of the two main sports broadcasters in the UK – carries a handful of live games. They’ll also have repeat showing of games in the non-primetime viewing sports. In 2019, however, BT stopped broadcasting the AFL Highlights show after some issue with international broadcasting. That’s a bit of a knock for the casual viewer, and perhaps something the AFL want to look at if they are to attract a wider international audience given the success of things like the NFL’s Red Zone.
The AFL really doesn’t get much coverage at all in the print media, despite the fact a certain Australian media mogul owns two of the most important UK newspapers, The Sun and The Times. The Guardian, which really has made a push to enter the digital coverage, will have a fair amount of coverage on its website, but perhaps not enough to satiate avid fans.
The one industry that does cover AFL, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the UK betting industry. Several of the bookmakers listed at https://www.freebets.co.uk/ cover everything from individual matches to player awards. In fact, it’s quite interesting to see how the markets are interpreted. For example, 888sport and Unibet have put Patrick Cripps in as 3/1 (4.00) favourite for the Brownlow Medal, whereas Ladbrokes Australia have him (at the time of writing) as the 4/1 (5.00) third favourite. The Aussie site has Nat Fyfe in as the 3/1 (4.00) favourite, whereas the majority of major UK bookies have the Freemantle captain in at a price of 9/2 (5.50).
Analysis can be hard to come by in print media
Of course, the Ladder doesn’t lie and both Aussie bookmakers and British ones unsurprisingly have put Geelong in as favourites for the AFL Premiership agreeing on a price of around 5/2 (3.50). Some UK bookies do cover AFL in betting blogs, and you often find that those are the best sources of info for game analysis, even if you are not going to place a bet. Yet, the coverage is a bit like the general media coverage – scarce and dependent upon sourcing from Australia.
The weather often ensures that there isn’t a parade of guys wearing sleeveless Carlton or Essendon shirts on the streets of Birmingham or Manchester, but you do often find men at the gym togged out in AFL colours. Whether that’s a fashion statement, a memento from a gap year or the sign of a true fan is unknown.
As, given the time difference, there are unlikely to be millions of Brits huddled around television sets to catch the 2019 AFL Grand Final, it’s easy to perhaps dismiss AFL as not able to become a popular sport in the UK. But sometimes these things take patience. NFL is a good example of how a sport once not seen as palatable for a UK audience can become popular over time. Yet, losing that highlights show is a big deal. It’s the kind of entry-level event that can bring new fans to the game, so perhaps the AFL should take a look at getting it back on the menu.
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