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Brian Barrish – A Hawk on the Streets of Philadelphia

  • Friday, May 28 2021 @ 10:26 pm ACST
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Whether as a commentator, player, fan, media maestro for the USAFL or any of a myriad of roles within Australian Football, Brian Barrish is a well-respected voice of the game. His views of all aspects of footy are informed, but more than that they are firmly aimed at the growth of the game across the United States of America. In this article, Brian reflects on his own introduction to the game and looks at the growth of the game, with particular interest in women’s footy, the ravages and impacts of COVID-19 and much more.

And now, I’ll hand the microphone over to Brian.

I was born and raised in Philadelphia and currently live in the suburbs with my wife, daughter, and assorted pets. I grew up in a sports-loving family (aside from mom, who likes sports but not at the same level as my dad, my brother and I). We watched a lot of baseball and hockey as kids, but growing up in Philadelphia, you got behind all four (at the time) major sports teams, so that's what I did. I was fortunate to grow up in a city with a number of legendary play-by-play announcers, such as Gene Hart, Mike Emrick, Harry Kalas, and Merrill Reese, and all of that enthusiasm and greatness led me to want to be a commentator when I grew up. I spent many a day commentating on my Nintendo and Sega games as practice. Out of high school, I went to university majoring in broadcast journalism, but ended up switching schools and majors and would eventually go into information technology.

I was a sports nerd. I read about different sports, including ones I hadn't seen yet. Rugby and Cricket tickled my fancy, but both were very rare and I didn't see much of either until the internet became more prevalent. I had seen about four seconds of an Aussie Rules match when I was maybe about ten, but I had no idea what it was.

As much as I loved sports, I was a terrible athlete, something my peers constantly reminded me of in no uncertain terms. I spent eight years playing for my neighborhood club, the Bustleton Bengals, playing mostly baseball, but also soccer, basketball, and hockey. I ended my playing career in high school; by that time my dad was coaching my brother in basketball, baseball, and soccer, so I assisted him with coaching as well as organizing and running each of the leagues. I was a referee and umpire across the different sports, and later served on the club's executive board as its webmaster.

After I had started playing in the USAFL, but before I became Media Manager, I was an editor, podcaster, and lead rugby writer for The Soccer Desk and Philly Sports Live.

In the spring of 1995, when I was 13 years old, I came home from school one day and, in my dalliance ahead of having to do school work, turned on the TV and started channel surfing. I happened across a weekly highlight show that showed portions of each of the weeks' games. I had seen Aussie Rules that one time when I was younger but this was the first time I was fully immersed. I was hooked. There was nothing familiar about any of what I was watching; the game play, the umpires and their "finger guns," the accents, the way they announced the scores, it was all new and exciting.

For two or three years I religiously watched this show. Then it faded away, and it wasn't until 2000 or so that I was able to start following the league online regularly. Watching the game without paying a small fortune was impossible, so I was limited to reading about games online and, eventually, listening to them. So, for about a decade, my main mode of following games was via my eardrums. And I would stay up late and listen to matches and, in the process, became in awe of callers such as Rex Hunt, Jim Brayshaw, and Dennis Cometti. It wasn't just my favorite sport, but it was a joy to listen to.

I hadn't even considered playing or being involved in footy at the local level, even after I discovered the USAFL. To me, the league seemed like a bunch of rugged athletes who would've broken me in half if I had ever thought of playing. In 2007, I saw that the local club here, the Philadelphia Hawks, were hosting their annual Grand Final party. With my wife Chelsea's encouragement, I decided to go, even though we weren't going to know anyone there.

The party was at an Applebee's, and we found an empty table off to the side and tucked in waiting for the game to start. Not long after we sat down, a procession of Hawks players came over to introduce themselves to us and ask how we found out about the sport and the club. They asked if I was interested in playing the following year, and I politely declined, saying that I wasn't athletic enough. I believe my exact words were, "I run like a pregnant giraffe." They didn't care, they wanted me to come out anyway.

The following spring I came out for the Hawks' first 9-a-side match. I was standing off the side wearing sneakers and gym shorts. Jon Loring, the Hawks' coach, came over and asked if I was there to play footy. My head was screaming "no, because you're gonna die if you go out there," but I said, "yes."

Jon said, "Good! See those guys in the blue and white jumpers over there? Learn their names because in ten minutes you're going to be on their team."

I played, I didn't die, and I had a lot of fun. Jon came over after the game and invited me to start to come to the weekly trainings ahead of our first game of the season, a road game in Raleigh, North Carolina. We got on a bus and drove eight hours to get out and play in 100F temperatures. That was the first of 61 games I played for the Hawks. I was elected club secretary in 2009 and held that role for eight seasons before stepping down to focus on my role with the league. I developed the social media presence for the Hawks and started doing game write ups (writing up games that you're playing in is challenging, by the way) and helped grow the teams' footprint.

By 2014, with my career winding down, I was trying to decide on what to do to stay involved with the game. I had become friends with two members of the USAFL board, Mike Sheppard and Drea Casillas, who were familiar with my work for the Hawks and for the soccer outlets, and they approached me about stepping into the role for that year's Nationals, and I've been there ever since. I love all of the social media work I do, but being able to do commentary, something I had wanted to do since I was a kid, and something I thought I'd never get to do on an organized level, is my favorite part.

I honestly don't know if I would've stuck with the sport, as a player or as media manager, without the people. Nationals has become a family reunion. Being in the center of the league means I have friends all over the country and on both sides of the Pacific who share my passion for this weird lovable sport, and that's something I don't know that I would have had I not said "yes" to Jon when he asked me to come play thirteen years ago. The amount of enthusiasm for the game here in the States, both here and abroad, keeps me going.

I think [my interest in the game] borderlines between interested and fanatical but leaning more towards the lateral. It's hard not to get burnt out on the sport when you're thinking about it even in the offseason, and sometimes I have to tell myself that I have to step back a bit. It's also hard to watch AFL games outside of the overnight "live" hours because I simply don't have the time during the day to watch games on delay. I will listen to VFLW games called by my friend Peter Holden and his colleagues while I'm at work, and when I'm feeling nostalgic I'll listen to old AFL radio broadcasts as well as old USAFL and IC games that I and others have done.

That said, I still talk about footy a lot. It's such a huge part of my life and I love seeing the reaction of people who don't know about the game when I explain it to them. You never know who you're going to sell the game to. Especially with a league as accessible as the USAFL here.

My first season of footy, 2008, was of course the year that the Hawks upset the Cats in the Grand Final. I was playing for the Philly Hawks, and at the GF party that year we were all going for Hawthorn, so I decided to stick with it. My secondary club is the Dockers; a friend of mine who I had met at the previous year's Grand Final promised to procure me a Dockers jumper if I barracked for them, so I have a soft spot for Freo.

But that's my main connection to them. Because I didn't grow in Australia, the geographical attachment isn't as strong. I'll watch anyone play, and I just love having a good game of footy.

[With regard to the impacts of COVID-19] I think that "clear air" that footy had for those four or five weeks really helped the sport get visibility here, as evidenced by the fact that we had several hundred or more people follow us on social media during that time just from the states. Of those followers, we had a number of them commit to the sport by getting ‘WatchAFL’ subscriptions through the USAFL, or get involved in the game locally. We have received interest from people about starting new clubs, as well as getting involved with clubs that have already been established. We are also seeing clubs such as Kansas City and St Louis, which were near dormancy prior to COVID, come back with a vengeance and are moving towards steady tenancy.

The delay in getting an American TV contract done was a hindrance to all of the progress made last year, but now that it's done, we're seeing new fans and old come back to the sport when they're able to watch it on the Fox channels. There are those are who still watching it regularly, even with the return of "normal" American sport, which is good for us as a game and for us as a league.

The question of sustainability will lie in how much the AFL wants to invest in promoting the game here. COVID has understandably changed everyone's financial capabilities in terms of what is feasible as responsible investment, but we do know that the AFL wants to expand the game globally and they want the game to become big here in the states, just like we do. That's going to take some working with the television networks here to advertise and promote. It will also take some investment to educate, and perhaps some ads - made by Americans, not by Aussies with rough Yank accents - explaining the rules and promoting the USAFL will augment that.

To clarify, we have 48 member-clubs, but in fifty cities (Ohio Valley River Rats is made up of three smaller clubs in Cincinnati, Louisville, and Indianapolis). As I mentioned above, we have seen some great strides in places that were struggling ahead of the pandemic. There are still some teams that are going along with a handful of players, but we are working to ensure that they are able to recruit and have sustainable programs.

The surge in interest has meant that we are busy helping people who don't have clubs in their area get programs off the ground. We have programs in Memphis and Pittsburgh that are getting established and are moving closer towards becoming official members of the league, as well as places like Detroit and South Carolina. The Southeast has seen the most growth in the past decade, with folks like Wayne Kraska doing a lot of hard work in helping to get the programs in Georgia and Jacksonville started.

We've also seen a number of cities have enough players to accommodate two separate clubs in the past several years. Minneapolis, Denver, Phoenix, Baltimore/Washington and Dallas now all have two teams. There is still plenty of room to grow, both in filling in the map and expanding existing markets, and I look forward to seeing where we'll be playing footy next.

[Moving to the women’s game], the first time I saw women's footy was during my first Nationals in 2008. I umpired a pool match and kept score for the Grand FInal. The passion and enterprise for the game was there, even if the skills weren't. But I was impressed nonetheless, and the women's game has gone from being a small part of the picture here to an equal entity. In more than a decade, we've gone from scrappy play to a very high standard that is being eyeballed by state and first-grade clubs in Australia.

I believe that the growth of women's footy -- both here and overseas -- is as important, if not more important, than the men's game. Men will always want to play the game and be involved. But having strong women's programs, both in number and in quality, lifts the program up to another dimension and makes the club universal. Anyone can play, anyone can be involved, and anyone can ride with the sport for as long as they want to. And if we have good female athletic ambassadors showing the sporting community how good Aussie Rules is, then that benefits the sport as a whole.

We now have 30 of our clubs with some sort of women's participation and that number is steadily growing. It is our hope that in the next several years that number can be closer to 90% of our clubs with women's teams.

What's great about our women's program too is that 90% of our women are American. That means that our clubs, in conjunction with the USAFL Women's Association, are doing a fantastic job recruiting locally.

I think the biggest misconception in terms of Americans, or anyone overseas getting involved in Aussie Rules, is that we want to take it over and homogenize it with the things that make our own sports great. I don't think that's the case at all. We love the sport BECAUSE it is Australian and because it is so unique.

The lifeblood of the game is Australian, after all. Forged by the ones who codified the rules in the 1850's in Melbourne and the ones who played Marngrook for many years before. The heritage belongs to those and to all of the others who have played and supported and managed the game at every level from local on up for the last century plus, and nothing anyone can do can take away from that.

But the game just doesn't belong to Australians anymore. It belongs to those of us who wake up at 1am to watch our teams play, or to listen in because of the scarcity of TV coverage. It belongs to the ones who spend $50 shipping on a $100 guernsey. It belongs to those of us who spend our Wednesday nights in the summer evening heat to train, and those who spend time and money away from their families to go on long road trips to play the sport they love.

We need more hearts being for their game. And that is why I do what I do.