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The search for an American AFL star

2010 May 10
by Robert Macdonald

The history of the Australian Football League has seen a few non-Australians make their mark, with Ireland representing being the most viable pool of foreign-born talent due to the similarity of Australian and Gaelic Football.  A few players from other nations have made the playing lists of AFL clubs in the past and season 2010 sees two North Americans, Mike Pyke (a former Canadian Rugby Union international) and Seamus McNamara (former pro basketballer from Milwaulkee), along with many Irishmen, a player from Japan, and players born in the Sudan and Brazil, all in AFL colours; but the internationalisation of the AFL is a relatively small issue, compared to the same issue in the US major leagues or the global sports like soccer and basketball. 

The search is now on in earnest for Americans to join the AFL.  Prospects seem good, given the tens if not hundreds of thousands of American and Canadian high school and collegiate athletes who don’t make the pro leagues.  Basketballers, some American Football players, track or medium distance runners, lacrosse, soccer and rugby players would be ‘likely types’; in addition to those in the growing Australian football competitions sanctioned by American governing body, the USAFL and Canadian governing body, AFL Canada.

Last month saw the AFL appoint Tony Woods as the first dedicated ‘International Development Manager’. Today it was announced there will be a reality TV show, ‘American Footy Star’ and scouting camps to be held in Dallas, New York and LA later this year. 

While the reality TV element makes this story too funny not to report, it raises interesting questions about cost-benefit analysis in the context of athletic development and the spillover effects from athletic development to marketing & promotion.  How can clubs and leagues engage in cost minimal activities to deepen the talent pool while raising the profile of a sport/league/club and generating new markets for consumers and sponsors? 

History gives us the examples of farm teams and spring camps in Major League Baseball, and roller hockey (esp. in the warmer climes) as a device for the National Hockey League.  AFL endorsed player agents being sent out across the world (in a manner similar to, but hopefully not as detrimental as, the missionaries in Africa) are another example. 

Which represents the best ROI?  Olson & Schwab (2000) have an interesting paper highlighting the extent of the on-field competitive advantage to early adopters of MLB farm teams, but the fiscal ROI on athletic development seems to be an issue more shrouded in mystery. 

Who should pay?  The competition organiser or the paticipant club?  Much of that will depend upon who can appropriate the returns.  The starting point in theory is that sports/leagues where clubs have monopsony rights enabling the recouping of investments are more likely to see clubs invest in such athletic development; but I am not aware of solid empirical analysis of that proposition beyond anecdotal comparisons of different sports/leagues (someone please enlighten me if you know of a good study). 

What can a league like the AFL learn from established global sports about how to regulate such activities?  Regulation to avoid outcomes such as the near slave trade of soccer juniors from developing nations to the European core of the sport would be a good start.

5 Responses
  1. May 12, 2010

    Robert, this has nothing to do with soccer. It is Australian Rules Football. Wake up mate.

  2. May 12, 2010

    Robert, sorry i see your original article posted separately here – it was reproduced in the Christian Science monitor site and suggested that the search was for a soccer player. I think we can blame the editor over there.

  3. Robert Macdonald permalink
    May 12, 2010

    Hi Troy, no problem. I’ve seen some of the photos the CSM attach to my posts and they clearly have no idea that Australian football is a different sport from rugby, gridiron or soccer. Americans – they struggle with the basics sometimes :-)

  4. May 20, 2010

    Good point. It’s certainly possible to spend a lot on recruitment for minimal gain. If the reality TV show can defray the costs then that could be the factor that makes the difference.

    I suspect it’s not long before the AFL draft camp has its own reality TV show. If you can get drama out of such confections as Masterchef, then imagine the drama inherent in a bona fide competition.

    I recently published a thing on my own blog about the merits of importing into our game: focussing on strategy and analysis as well as players:

    http://thomasthethinkengine.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/america-football-progress/

  5. May 31, 2010

    I have to say, every time I come to thesportseconomist.com there is another remarkable article up. One of my friends was telling me about this topic a few weeks ago. I think I will e-mail them the link here and see what they say.

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