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The Arizona Model and Growing Pains for Californian Footy

  • Wednesday, August 11 2004 @ 01:05 am ACST
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North America West Coast USA was slower to take to Australian football, then it looked like it might outshine the East. Now the game is at the crossroads in the giant state of California - will it hit rock bottom or is the sky the limit?

World Footy News tries to present an unbiased but positive view of the growth of Australian Football around the world. The positive aspect is normally easy to find, but this year news from southern California has not been so bright, although the true ramifications may not be known for a couple of years.

The California Australian Football League (CAFL) was founded in 1998 with the teams Inland Empire, Orange County, Los Angeles and San Diego, with Santa Cruz joining the following year. A team from the neighbouring state, the Phoenix Scorpions, also competed on occasions in the following years. There were plenty of onlookers who considered the US west coast to be the rising star of US football. Most games were close to full size Australian Football matches, but a lot of travel was involved and anecdotal evidence suggests that the league's growth had begun to stagnate. Rookies were often finding it difficult to get game time, and new players were not prepared (or not able) to commit the time to travel with their teams (no doubt this varied from club to club and year to year). For some, producing a winning team was more important than developing raw numbers. Certainly it is not for an outsider to judge what a person does with their recreational time, but from the biased perspective of wanting to see Australian Rules Football grow, in the short term numbers are perhaps more important than quality.

Santa Cruz withdrew from the CAFL in 2002 to concentrate on building the Golden Gate AFL (a report on this competition will follow in coming weeks). Phoenix has also been developing a local metro league, the Arizona Australian Football League, and left the CAFL to concentrate on the AZAFL in 2004, although this move may not have been entirely voluntary. These 9 a side games were aimed at providing local competition that was accessible to new and experienced players alike, whilst promoting the game in Arizona and reducing travel and time commitments. The AZAFL became a feeder competition to the new representative side, the Arizona Hawks. The Hawks would then play occasional CAFL matches, and travel to the US Nationals. This bold move appears to be bearing fruit. After initially having 4 Metro sides in 2000, the number has expanded to 6 sides in 2004.

The "state team" Arizona Hawks played reigning US National Champs Denver in a much publicised game on snow and were resounding winners. As many have said, one game does not make a season, but if the Hawk's can continue some of that form, they will be winning in two of the three key areas - numbers in a local league and results at the Nationals (the other area being, in the author's opinion, junior development - issues such as financial and crowd support will hopefully then follow).

In 2004 the CAFL was restructured to provide a Metro season, again, with the intention of reducing travel and growing the game locally. Unfortunately there was a large exodus of players from the league, for reasons that have been much debated, ranging from players moving, to players not wishing to play Metro, as opposed to traditional 18-a-side football. Comment will not be passed on the politics involved, but the result was that after what appeared to be a promising start, with the inclusion of the US Army side Mojave Greens, the Metro season was cancelled midway through. Orange County and San Diego withdrew support and the Greens were scheduled for deployment.

The CAFL website has now been largely dormant for over 2 months, other than their Forum discussion board. There has been simmering debate about the best way forward, ranging from resuming the season to a complete overhaul. Some players and teams wish to focus on 18-a-side football, even if that means extensive travel, as much as a league covering all of the US west, while others favour the "Arizona model", of metro sides feeding "regular" teams. As a distant observer, I would recommend the Arizona model, with a metro season aimed at recruiting new players and developing rookies, followed by a short 18-a-side season in preparation for the Nationals. Obviously these things will have to be sorted out by the Californians and surrounding states themselves.

Whether the damage is irreparable remains to be seen. The website of the Women's Australian Football Association, which originally had close ties to the CAFL, has also been relatively quiet, but that may just be due to time committments. Despite some ongoing recriminations, the good news is that the discussions have largely turned to how best to organise the 2005 season. Meanwhile, Arizona's metro season continued (Tuscon Javelinas going premiers), the GGAFL continues on, San Diego and Orange County have played matches against each other and the Arizona Hawks, and the Mojave Greens have declared they love the game and will stick with it. Hopefully an AFL match will be confirmed for LA next year, and that must surely give everyone a boost in enthusiasm. This coming weekend also sees the Western Regionals in San Diego, for determining seedings for the US Nationals.

Despite getting the wobbles this year, there is plenty of reason to think that Californian footy will come through this turbulent period bigger and better than ever. And we'll keep an eye on Arizona and Golden Gate to see how their "experiments" continues to unfold.