Melbourne is a city that prides itself being totally and utterly obsessed with sport.
Any sport or sporting event is greeted with enormous enthusiasm and excitement — this is the home of The Australian Open Tennis, this is the home of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix, this is the home of the Boxing Day Test (always one of the biggest cricket matches each year), the massive Spring Carnival horse racing series, and this is the home of Australian Rules Football.
What is Australian Rules Football?
Australian Rules Football is a game most similar to Gaelic football. It involves two teams of 18, trying to maintain control of the ball in order to score goals. Players can run with the ball, kick the ball, and use their hands to control and pass the ball. It is a full body contact sport.
The origins of Australian Rules Football can be traced back to 1841, but the rules of the game began to be codified around 1858 when the game became seen as a good way for cricketers to keep fit during the winter months.
Since those early days, the game has rapidly grown in participation and popularity (although not beyond Australia), and it's generally seen as Australia’s national sport.
Participation in Australian Rules Football
The latest statistics available indicate that around 1.4 million people are registered as playing Australian Rules Football on a regular basis in Australia.
This places it ahead of cricket (around 1.3 million participants) and soccer (1.2 million participants).
Australian Rules Football is also the most highly attended spectator sport in Australia, with over 6 million people attending the matches of of the Australian Football League – a competition that averages an attendance of over 30,000 per game.
The Australian Football League
The highest-level professional competition for Australian Rules Football is known as the Australian Football League – teams from across the country play against each other in order to be crowned premiers of the season.
While the Australian Football League began life in 1896 with just six Melbourne-based clubs, today the league consists of 18 clubs from across Australia.
The season consists of twenty three rounds of matches held from March until September. Once these matches have been completed the top eight teams then compete in a finals series, ending in a grand final between the two top teams.
Watching Australian Rules Football
Australian Rules Football is an incredibly fast-paced and fast-moving game played over a large oval playing field. If you try and watch it on television (without having much knowledge of the game) it's almost impossible to follow what's going on.
You really need to watch a match live to get a sense of the proportions of the game, the positions that each of the players are playing, and to get your head around how the action flows from one end of the ground to the other.
September is a month in Melbourne that is devoted to all things Australian Rules. Apart from the wall-to-wall media coverage of the top eight teams – their players, their coaches, their injuries and dramas – there are banners throughout the streets, shop windows are all decorated, and it's common for businesses to encourage all of their employees to dress up in the colours of their favourite teams.
Everyone becomes an expert, everyone has an opinion, every conversation begins and ends with football. This is what sport as a national obsession feels like.
If you’re in Melbourne in September you need to immerse yourself in the city’s football culture. Choose a team, get involved, and become part of this city’s obsession with Australian Rules Football.