Off the grid

The bulky body pads, skin-tight emblazoned jerseys and heavy, wired helmets thundering in unison cut a stark contrast to the normality of Australian football, and paint the determined picture of a small gridiron association striving to achieve success and recognition in the competitive Western Australian sporting arena.

Gridiron, or North American Football, is a quintessential American sport, and even those with little knowledge of the game have an innate understanding of its colossal popularity in the States and the lucrative superstar status of its elite athletes.

Standard gridiron helmet

Gridiron helmet

Gridiron West, the official governing body of gridiron in WA, was first formed in 1994, and despite its growth from two teams to seven and the introduction of a junior league, Western Australian lovers of the game face a constant battle to obtain funding and recruit players.

Westside Steelers defensive back and Australian representative Ben Middleton, 24, said the league was virtually unheard of in Perth.

“Most people I speak to about the sport have no idea it is played in their own backyard,” Middleton said.

“Our main issue is exposure; gridiron isn’t televised in WA, there are no advertisements and it’s extremely difficult to find sponsors to get on board and support such a niche ‘American’ sport.

“It’s a shame, because in our small pool we have talented, dedicated players who should be representing their state and country but it’s just not financially viable, and there’s no recognition.

“We don’t even have proper lined fields and we play on grounds that aren’t being used by the major sporting clubs that day.”

Westside Steelers treasurer and senior player Craig Dropulich said the league was sponsored by a high-profile international company in the past, and their games were televised on a local station until both the sponsorship and television deal ended abruptly.

Ben Middleton, 24, Westside Steelers player and Australian representative

Ben Middleton

“This was 15 years ago, mind you, but it has had a massive effect on the recognition of the game in Perth,” Dropulich said.

“Two thousand people were turning out to watch our gridiron finals, and now it’s a really good day if 200 turn up.”

The sport itself receives some funding from the Department of Sport and Recreation and is in constant competition with the more than 5000 clubs vying for government assistance in Western Australia.

Departmental communications manager Charles Hayne said Gridiron West did receive funding recently and were encouraged to apply for grants in the coming year.

“The department supplied the association with a sum of money, but we do not directly fund individual clubs and we do not govern how this money is spent,” he said.

Middleton fears the gridiron talent in WA will go unnoticed due to the lack of professional development, and the minimal interest shown by the public.

“As players, the odds are stacked against us,” he said.

Christopher Abbott, Corporate Communications Coordinator for the Western Australian Institute of Sport, said the institute did not offer services to develop gridiron athletes simply due to the sporting code having its own functioning development pathway.

Westside Steelers gridiron uniform

Westside Steelers gridiron uniform

“It’s certainly not a case of the sport being too niche, but the WAIS principally serves to provide opportunities for athletes to achieve excellence in elite sports that fall under the Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games roster,” he said.

“There is no question that, for aspiring local gridiron athletes, living in Western Australia would make a professional dream difficult to attain.

“Most aspirants would seek a sporting scholarship within the American College system, and very few would reach elite level outside of that pathway.”

Middleton, who has represented Australia alongside local teammates, said the gridiron sporting community in WA was small, but the sport itself was tactically brilliant and severely undervalued.

“I know we are competing with AFL and it’s a massive task, but if West Australians came to watch a game or signed their boys up to play, they would be pleasantly surprised,” he said.

“We play because we love it, but a little recognition and a crowd cheering us on would be a great boost for the players and provide exposure and incentive for new players to join the sport.”

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