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Thursday, May 11, 2017

All Sides Win as AFL Travels to China

This week over a year’s worth of groundwork and preparation come together as Port Adelaide and Gold Coast take the field for a Round 8 match at Jiangwan Stadium (capacity 10,964) in China on Sunday, May 14.
This game is the first ever to be played for premiership points in China, and it became official in April 2016. Last October we learned the Gold Coast Suns would be the opposition.
This is the crown jewel in a new agreement between Port and China, but it’s far from the only element. The Power’s Round 3 match with Essendon and Round 5 match against Geelong were both televised nationwide as part of the TV agreement with Chinese Central Television. CCTV is also televising the 25-week series The AFL Show.
In addition to AFL scores and highlights, the Power’s Chinese international recruit Chen Shaoliang is featured regularly on the 30-minute program to share his experiences into Port Adelaide, the AFL, and living in South Australia.
There’s more.
In addition to sponsoring Team China at the International Cup 2017, Port is also sponsoring the South China Football League and has formed the Power Footy program in 14 schools across three provinces.
The Power’s China engagement team expanded to seven full-time staff, and they also have game development officers on the ground working in southern China as well as in Shanghai. Port is also running its pre-season camps in Shanghai. So Port has made a tremendous investment in China.
Port Adelaide has also signed a multi-million-dollar partnership with Shanghai Cred, a property developer and agribusiness leader based in Shanghai. The deal has the club develop Australian Football in China for the next three years. Shanghai Cred founder Gui Guo Jie is a footy fan, having seen a game at the Adelaide Oval in 2015.
Port Adelaide executive Andrew Hunter has played a key role in the Power’s push into China. He seems to be the right man for the job since he has experience in international engagement from his time with the South Australian government. He believes Port can make the game an annual event for the short-term future.
The Power has generated $4 million in corporate backing for this match, so financially the match can do no worse than break even.  It also took commitment from the very top, with Port Adelaide’s chief executive Keith Thomas onboard. Thomas has said the China strategy has brought in over $6 million, with there being the chance of pushing that number even higher.
In order to make the China trip work, Port had to ‘buy’ the rights to another club’s home game, as they (and the Adelaide Crows) are required to play all 11 home games at the Adelaide Oval. Gold Coast emerged as the willing partner last fall. Port Adelaide president David Koch said the Power paid $500,000 to get the Suns to come onboard. This may give us a peek into the thought process, as Gold Coast’s financial report shows they lost $300,000 in 2015 and lost $2.9 million last year.
The Gold Coast Suns averaged about 11,500 per home game and membership is down eight percent. The club is expected to get about $20 million in central AFL funding this season, according to Australian Financial Review.
Jiangwan Stadium, site of the Round 8 Suns-Power match.
In addition to Chen Shaoliang, China and the AFL have a bit of a common history. In 1908 Wally Koochew, whose father was Chinese, played in four games for Carlton. Lin Jong, of Chinese/Timorese descent plays significant minutes for the Western Bulldogs. And in October 2010, Melbourne and Brisbane played the AFL Kaspersky Cup Shanghai Showdown, as both sides missed the postseason. The Demons rallied from a 31-point deficit and got a goal from Liam Jurrah on the siren to win 84-79.
As for off-the-oval gamesmanship, given that this match is Port Adelaide’s effort they expected to wear home guernseys. It makes some sense because they feel they bought all the home rights with that half million payout.
Unbeknownst, Gold Coast wanted to wear their home red kits since this was one of their ‘home’ games though it would not be played in Metricon Stadium. The teams couldn’t reconcile their differences, and eventually the AFL stepped in and sided with the Suns.
Apparently this set Koch over the edge and he’s on record saying this is the last time the Suns are asked to play in China. This threat may be a tad empty, as Port has wanted to take the AFL to China for a while but has had trouble lining up an opponent. Plus, Port still plans to bring their traditions along, such as playing their anthem ‘Never Giving In’ from Rudimental, as well as INXS’ ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ theme in the 60-second countdown to first bounce. So it seems both sides are getting something positive.
Obviously preparation changes dramatically for both squads. Gold Coast won’t have much time to build on their big win over Geelong, as total travel time with buses, layovers, and planes is about 20 hours. Port Adelaide will also be challenged by travel as they try to bounce back following their loss to the West Coast Eagles.
Gold Coast moved to 11th on the ladder with their win last weekend, while Port dropped to 7th. The Power won last year’s head to head by 33 points at Metricon Stadium. Smog and warm temperatures near 29 degrees should both be factors for both sides to deal with.
Regardless of the final score both Port Adelaide and the AFL get exposure into a very lucrative Chinese market, Chinese sports fans get to follow the exploits of one of their own, and business relationships between the two nations are strengthened. Additionally, the Suns are set to be winners too with China being a favorite travel destination for Gold Coast residents and vice versa.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Atlanta Kookaburras

It's been a time of transition and turnover for the Atlanta Kookaburras.

Season 2016 ended with the squad combining with Baton Rouge (Louisiana) at USAFL Nationals and finishing just out of the finals series. Their one loss was by 10 points in their opener to a skilled Des Moines (Iowa) side while learning to play together. They followed that with a win by 11 over perennial power Denver. Their third and final game was a resounding victory over Tulsa (Oklahoma), made more remarkable because they played the match after learning a clerical error would keep them from advancing.

A high point of 2016 was the club’s 100th win, coming on the road vs. the Nashville Kangaroos.

Mark Cannatelli played very well at Nationals and thus earned the Kookas’ 2016’s Best and Fairest, with Brett Hester placing second as well as earning his second consecutive Most Improved award. Sam Ridenhour took home Best Clubman, and Braden Medders, Ryan Downey, and Brian Gilliam also had fine seasons for Atlanta. There were also many compliments for new coach Brent Bacon.

Unfortunately life moves on and there is turnover every season. Mark Cannatelli earned his Ph.D., is now Dr. Cannatelli, and has begun a new career as an academic. Some of the regulars have made or are making trips to Australia, and Hester is returning from a hamstring injury suffered at Nationals.

The Kookas are off to a slow start in 2017 following losses to Nashville and to the North Carolina Tigers, but there is new enthusiasm and some new faces, so the future is still bright as the new players blend in.

Atlanta invites their Legends back home for a match on May 13, followed by a home game against Baton Rouge May 20.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Mason Cox Aims High in 2017

Collingwood big man Mason Cox is healthy and ready to be a difference maker in 2017. Now on the senior list, he’s in line to play a larger role in part due to a couple of departures-- Premiership player Travis Cloke to the Western Bulldogs, and second ruckman Jarrod Witts, who is now a Gold Coast Sun.

At 211 cm (6'10") Cox is able to play some in the ruck, but his soccer and basketball skills make him versatile enough to win his fair share of marking contests on the Collingwood forward line. Certainly his teammates love having a big target up front.

By now you’ve certainly heard the story of the big man (and fellow Texan). He played on the scout team for the Oklahoma State University women’s basketball side, worked his way onto the men’s team, graduated with an engineering degree, and was about to start a new job when he showed up at the AFL combine in 2014. He played for the Collingwood reserves in 2015, got the call up after two VFL games in 2016, and went on to kick the first Pies goal in the ANZAC day match against Essendon.

Cox kicked 17 goals in 2016 but shoulder and hip injuries limited him to 11 games. While he felt he exceeded expectations, he told ESPN Australia he wants more.
“I'm definitely looking forward to next year and having a bit more of an impact and being a bit more consistent as far as games go. Toward the end of the season, I had a few injuries that split me out of the squad for a bit. Hopefully I'll be healthy the whole year and be able to give all I can to the team,” Cox said.

Cox is eager to prove that he’s not a sideshow and can compete at the highest level of footy. Early returns are positive-- he had solid preseason showings against Essendon, Fremantle, and Richmond. His stat line included one behind, eight disposals and 29 hitouts in Collingwood’s round one loss to the Western Bulldogs.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jason Holmes: Still a Saint

            Jason Holmes’ time as a Saint will continue in 2017 after signing a one-year deal at the end of last season.  He also earned permanent status on the team’s senior squad since AFL rules state that players must be elevated or delisted after three years on a rookie list.
            His status, however, appears to be up in the air. The ruckman from Chicago, Illinois, USA was not in the lineup for any of St. Kilda’s preseason matches with Port Adelaide, Carlton, or Sydney.

            One reason for the uncertainty could be that the Saints already have three pure ruckmen signed beyond 2016—Tom Hickey, Billy Longer, and Lewis Pierce. Longer and Pierce are under contract until the end of 2018, while Hickey gained attention after a solid campaign last year.
            Adding Holmes to this mix would seem to create a logjam, giving the club four at the ruck position while many other teams have two or three plus another who could fill in as needed. You’d think the Saints would want versatile players who could also compete at the forward position. The other side of this is that they like Holmes enough to sign him and add him to the big club.

            Jason Holmes played college basketball in the U.S. for Mississippi Valley State and Morehead State in Kentucky. Saying no to the possibility of playing pro basketball, he impressed at the AFL combine in Los Angeles and then joined St. Kilda as an international rookie in 2013.

            Holmes played at Sandringham in 2014 and 2015, seeing action in 37 senior games and kicking six goals. He also saw action in 14 VFL games in 2016 and then made history when he suited up for the Saints’ final three games of 2015. This choice to become the first American to play AFL footy was likely a difficult one. His brother, Oakland Raiders’ (NFL) receiver Andre Holmes was getting married at that time.

            Holmes also played in the final two games of season 2016, with 59 hitouts total in wins over Richmond and Brisbane. So he has the experience and the feel of the big leagues and undoubtedly is ready to leave a larger impression.

            The Saints just missed out on making the eight in 2016, finishing at 12-10. They open season 2017 against Melbourne.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Heritage of the Game

** Editor's note: This is the first post I've written as a correspondent for World Footy News. I'm excited about where this can go and I look forward to contributing.

            I like that AFL sides do a good job of remembering their roots and telling their entire story, even if the memories aren’t as pleasant.

            St. Kilda matches don’t make it to the states, at least not through my cable TV package, so I’ve been watching a season 2016 tilt with Melbourne. On the back of the Saint unis is an “EST. 1873,” or established in 1873, which alludes to the first year of their existence. They’ve never relocated and granted, the majority of their footy hasn’t been of the winning type, but remembering your history and knowing where you’ve come from are both good things.

Front and back of the Sydney uniform top.
Note the SMFC above the number 8.
            The Sydney Swans do this on their guernseys by stitching in “SMFC” at the base of the neck. This of course stands for South Melbourne Football Club, which was this team’s identity from 1874 until 1982 when financial woes led to relocation that sent the team northeast. The initials were an addition in 2004.

            Moving a team like that is painful for supporters—it feels like something is being taken away, that their loyalty, their going to games and cheering with their families, ultimately meant nothing. So adding the old SMFC to the home and away kits is a very nice touch.

FFC is added in above the #22 on the
Western Bulldogs guernseys.
            Same thing in Footscray. The Footscray Football Club also had its share of money troubles and saw a path out by becoming the Western Bulldogs and potentially connecting with a larger fan base. You can see the “FFC” above the number on the back of the guernsey.

            I see teams here in the states move around and I don’t see the same thing. Can you imagine the Oklahoma City Thunder ever wearing anything that referred to the time the franchise spent as the Seattle SuperSonics? We don’t see the Baltimore Ravens talk about being the Cleveland Browns in a previous existence, nor do the Washington Nationals refer to ever being the Montreal Expos. But in Seattle, Cleveland, and Montreal, fans felt like they got stabbed in the back by owners who were seeking more money. Loyalty, history, and tradition meant nothing next to the almighty dollar.

            Nice that I don’t perceive these AFL sides disrespecting their fans like that. I get that a goal is to make money and not lose it, but very cool that a nod is given to a team’s heritage.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Wooden Spoons

When I worked in radio in rural North Central Kansas, we broadcast a daily sports interview program, and one of the things we did on Fridays during football season was pick winners of five games that were to be played that weekend. There were six or seven of us. We kept standings and everything, even had a end-of-season event where we celebrated the champion.

Something else we did was give the last-place finisher a spatula. The idea was mine, a derivative of the wooden spoon concept that is known in the Australian Football League. All I did was go get one from housewares at the nearby grocery store. I wasn't very good at picking games, so I usually wound up keeping the spatula in my office at work.

It was good, clean fun had by good people. Plus it helped fill an interview slot on Fridays.

So I thought I'd look into the wooden spoon history in the AFL. The side that finishes last on the ladder during the season gets the wooden spoon. It's not a recognized thing by the league, but it's a very common topic of discussion.

The wooden spoon custom apparently has its origins in academia in the late 1700s. Students at the University of Cambridge awarded the 'prize' to whomever got the lowest test scores but still earned a third-class degree. I haven't seen anything about how the concept migrated to Australia. Perhaps it connects to Britain's colonization of Australia which began in 1787.

Last year Essendon won last year's "award," their fifth but their first since 1933. That's impressive, but not as noteworthy as Carlton's wooden spoon drought that saw the Blues stay out of the basement for 105 years, picking up their first one in 2002. The bad thing for them is they've picked up three more since then.

The wooden spoon leaders are St. Kilda, with 27 last-place finishes, with their most recent one coming in 2014.

It looks like five wins is the magic number-- win that many and you should, *should* avoid it, at least nowadays, since the most recent five-win side to finish dead last was Brisbane in 1999. Every team has at least one spoon with the exception of newer clubs Adelaide which joined the AFL in 1990, and Port Adelaide, which began league play in 1997.

It also appears that us Yanks have latched onto the wooden spoon thing, as in Major League Soccer (MLS) the team with the fewest points at the end of the season takes one home. Chicago Fire won the inaugural spoon in 2015.

Friday, February 3, 2017

First Premiers

In doing research a while back I saw that the Essendon Bombers won the first premiership in the league that is now called the AFL, back in 1897. I love this sort of thing, so I thought I'd visit their site to see what sort of history page they had.

First, a brief overview. The team has played over 2400 games total, won 1350 of them, with a winning percentage of over 56%. All these statistics are third behind Collingwood and Carlton in the history of the AFL/VFL.

Anyhow I was looking for more of a year-to-year sort of thing on the Bomber website, similar to what I saw from some of the other clubs. What I did find was a page where each player is listed alphabetically. Not really what I was looking for, but it sure looks like every man who ever played for the Bombers has his own separate listing, which includes games played and a short bio. Very nice.

The Dons even have their own walk-in museum at their training facility in Essendon, which isn't too far from the Melbourne Airport.

The thing that wowed me was this museum is available via virtual tour, here. This is amazing stuff. It's where I learned that the Essendon Football Club was formed in 1872. They saw some success in winning VFA premierships in 1892-93-94 before leaving and joining the Victorian Football League for the 1897 season. There was no Grand Final that year-- Essendon won the premiership by virtue of beating Geelong, Collingwood, and Melbourne in round-robin play to finish 3-0.

screenshot of the Essendon Virtual Museum. A fantastic presentation
of their long and storied history. Great stuff.
The museum has displays of Bomber greats, a celebration of the back-to-back premiership sides of 1984 and 1985, and so much more. There is also homage paid to James Hird, who was a great player and coach for the team. His grandfather and father also have their place in team history.

However, James played a role in a doping scandal that has rocked the team for the last several years, costing him his place in the game. This scandal is part of the reason the 2016 Bombers took home their first wooden spoon (for finishing last on the ladder) since 1933.

However Hird's place in Dons history cannot be denied.

So much to see and absorb, so little time. This virtual museum demonstrates how history should be told, remembered, and celebrated. Well done, Essendon.

The Bombers open season 2017 on March 25 at the MCG against Hawthorn.