Gridiron grapples with growing pains

Football in Australia needs help.

No, not that type of football. Not that one, either.

American Football, or gridiron as it is called in Australia, has existed in most Australian states since 1994, but according to those who play it here, most Australians have no idea the game has taken hold.

Last year, Western Independent reported on the struggles of gridiron in Western Australia. Lack of funding, minimal exposure, and very little attendance to games were posing a threat to the survival of the sport in the state.

Now, conditions surrounding the sport seem to have remained stagnant.

“When I meet people and tell them I play gridiron here, their reaction is like ‘Really? We have that here?'” said Curtin Saints President David Olivieri.

Gridiron has not yet seen the rebirth its players desire, but a new found optimism has been emerging since last year, as players and coaches involved with the sport refuse to let it fade further into the background without a fight.

In his 10 years of playing gridiron, Olivieri has not only become the president of the Curtin Saints team, which plays in the Gridiron West association of which he is vice president, but he has also been named a captain of the Western Australia All-State team, which competes annually in the national tournament.

“On top of playing, I’m involved in a lot of the planning, organising, getting jerseys done, etc., just all the managerial stuff,” Olivieri says.

David Olivieri throws a football with a teammate before practice. Photo by Peter Dewar

David Olivieri throws a football with a teammate before practice. Photo by Peter Dewar

His dedication to gridiron has earned the respect of his fellow players, and he works every year to get others to step up as he has.

But despite Olivieri’s and others’ determination to get the “boring” tasks done so they can play, it is clear they still need volunteers and funding in order to keep gridiron alive in WA and Australia in general.

For one thing, the sport may be called gridiron, but a gridiron is technically the field that American Football is played on, and Australia has yet to feature one within its borders.

Instead, members of Gridiron West continue to play matches on rugby fields, some with uprights that can be moved back or forth to fit up to 90 of the 100 yards that American Football is played on, but none of the fields are dedicated to gridiron.

The WA state team trains at Kingsway Reserve in Madeley, but only after the youth soccer teams have finished using the field.

When the players on the state team go to the national tournament, each player will be paying upwards of $1500 just to be there.

Media coverage is almost non-existent. Apart from social media, Gridiron West gets minimal airtime from any mainstream source.

Yet even with the range of obstacles that gridiron players face, they still love the game enough to stick with it, and the issues seemingly come back to one central topic.

“The biggest problem is funding, as cliche as that sounds, ” Olivieri says.

“I mean even if we get a huge donation, that’s only going to last for so long.

“We need to find a way to grow the sport here and get consistent interest and create some revenue for years to come.”

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With money flowing in, the teams could hire actual managers instead of having players do everything. They could have a training staff, multiple positional coaches, maybe even get a real gridiron field.

Most importantly, the players would be able to focus on playing.

And while Olivieri says that gridiron has the potential to grow, some of his teammates say it is already on the rise.

“We’re on the brink of something real big here,” says Tom Dunn, a second-year player on the WA state team.

Tom Dunn poses with his helmet and a football before practice. Photo by Peter Dewar

Tom Dunn poses with his helmet and a football before practice. Photo by Peter Dewar

“We’ve got Western Australian guys going to play in the World Cup (of gridiron),” he says.

“There’s Australians getting scholarships to play at universities in the USA; it’s absolutely on the rise.

Dunn relates Australians’ experience with gridiron to Americans’ experience with rugby.

“People know what it is, they might have even seen it on TV once or twice. But they probably don’t know how to play it, or where it is played in their own state,” he says.

Dunn’s optimism is something dearly needed in order to improve conditions surrounding this sport.

“What we need is just a core group of people to really be dedicated to promoting and organising for the long run … retention of players is really down, and we really don’t have any volunteers,” Olivieri says.

“At the start of every season you’re bound to have half the team be rookies.”

Gridiron may never be as popular as the AFL, Rugby League or Rugby Union, but with dedicated staff and support from a state that has always relished the sporting scene, maybe yet another year’s time will revive the sport.

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