Golden Gate evolve their own way
Tuesday, September 07 2004 @ 12:37 am ACST
Contributed by: Brett Northey
In late 2001 the Santa Cruz Roos, based in the San Fransisco Bay area of northern California, decided that the long road trips to play in the California Australian Football League were becoming too much of a strain. The club was struggling for numbers, and had a very poor 2001 Nationals campaign. From this adversity grew the Golden Gate AFL.
The evolution of football in the US has been unusual, compared with the origins of the sport in Australia in the 19th century. Clubs sprung up around Melbourne (Victoria) in the 1850s and 60s, in Adelaide (South Australia) in the 1870s, and similarly in other states. These teams tended to play other local sides, with only occasional interstate matches (SA and Victoria took each other on once a year as early as the 1880s). In the US, the game has only been growing since the 1990s, but it immediately began with intercity and interstate matches as the primary focus. This was required as there tended to be only one team per region.
Many players enjoy the chance to travel and play footy with their mates on a roadtrip. But as many who have played the game will know, an away game can also be unwelcome. So some players are undoubtedly lost from the sport due to the travel committments, both financial and time. The remedy for increasingly many clubs is the metro (from metropolitan) league concept. This involves smaller teams playing each other. It has many advantages, such as the greater ease of finding smaller fields, and being able to field multiple teams with less numbers. Few sports require as many players as Australian Rules football, and it is a major impediment to the game's growth. Even in Australia there are many cases of schools not fielding teams because they do not quite have enough players, but could easily play 9 a side. Hopefully this is changing and children will no longer be lost fom the sport.
However, many also feel that at adult level the game loses some of its appeal when played with less than 18. But certainly an argument could be made for 14 or 16 a side on smaller fields, especially since football has evolved into a much greater running game in the last 20 years. That is another debate.
Faced with all these issues, Santa Cruz began a metro league under the banner of the Golden Gate Australian Football League, better reflecting their location. After starting with just 16 players on their first day, it has grown to be a strong four team competition, with nearly 100 players involved. Although described as a metro league, numbers have allowed the teams to swell to around 14 per side, but the league is flexible given week to week committments of the players, sometimes playing two 18 per side games instead. This is crucial to the league's success. So although it began as a two team metro competition, the GGAFL hopes the sides will develop into four independent clubs over the next few years. The teams are Marin, Oakland, San Jose and San Fransisco. League president Leigh Barnes feels that keeping the game local has been a key to the sport's rapid development. Speaking about that first season in 2002, he said "the fact that there was no travel involved, really hit home and by season's end, we numbered some fifty odd". The game has appealed to both expat Aussies and locals alike, with Leigh estimating that only around 40% of players are Australian, with the rest mainly American and Irish (no doubt exploiting the similarities to Gaelic football).
With such a strong base of players, the GGAFL will hopefully be immune to occasional losses of players and officials. The Golden Gate Roos now represent the league at the US Nationals, and performances have been improving, although that is not the main focus of the league. Expect to see them perform well in division two this year. Crucial to any growing sport is sponsorship, and the GGAFL are pleased to have the following companies on board: Security Management Group and HMR Group, as well as Coogee Importers.
Premiers for the just completed 2004 season are the Oakland Pirates, defeating San Jose in the Grand Final to claim the Back Forty Cup, 14.13 (97) to 12.4 (76).
The final piece in the jigsaw of growing the game is of course junior development. It is only early days for the GGAFL, but local player Jeff Finsand has done a lot of work already, organising junior matches under the Auskick non-contact style. The ball carrier has two seconds to dispose of it after being touched. Jeff conducted a 10 week clinic starting in December 2003, and an 8 week series in April/May 2004, teaching 10 - 13 year olds the skills and playing some games. A major issue is securing grounds, which is arguably the biggest obstacle Australian Rules faces across the whole world.
Below is a great pathways diagram, allowing kids to visualise their potential route from juniors through to national representation, and maybe even AFL stardom. Maybe the GGAFL will one day provide the first American to make the AFL.