Contributed by: Wesley Hull Tuesday, September 28 2021 @ 07:42 pm ACST
In the second series of interviews with people and personalities involved in Australian Football across the United States, Rick Shaibani from the Los Angeles Dragons shares his unique journey. Rick is already widely known to World Footy News readers as one of our writing team, but his journey to discover and then tell of our game adds another dimension, different again to those we have already interviewed.
The first question was to find his earliest connections to our game.
“I first discovered the wonderful world of Aussie rules when I lived in Phoenix, Arizona shortly after graduating from university in 2015. I didn't really enjoy my time in Phoenix, but I did meet some cool people, mostly through a local rugby union club that I joined. I had briefly played some union in college thanks to the influence of my dad, who played quite a bit himself growing up. Unfortunately, I never had a ton of time to dedicate to it, plus the side that I joined in Phoenix was already pretty experienced and didn't have a ton of room for newcomers to crack the starting line-up.”
“Out of the blue one day, a teammate of mine - an American no less - suggested that I try Aussie rules football. I hadn't heard of it previously, but as fate would have it, next week I found myself at a bar at about 1 AM with a friend, and the only sporting event on TV was the AFL Finals! A quick Google and YouTube search later introduced me to the best sport on Earth. I found the Arizona Hawks, the local USAFL side, and once I moved to LA, I got involved with the LA Dragons. Never would I have guessed how much this sport would impact my life and how inherently fun the competition and mateship is.”
A question around how much the game has changed since he found it and where it is today leads to some interesting insights.
“It most definitely has changed, for better and for worse. Obviously, there's been significant COVID-era challenges that have hurt all USAFL clubs, financially and in terms of player retention. Nationwide, there's more clubs than ever, but keeping and sustaining the momentum is always the challenge.”
“I do love that the US Revos [Revolution] and Freedom teams have been able to showcase Aussie rules on the world stage at the International Cups. Even though they haven't been able to win flags yet, it's still proving that Americans are able to play Aussie rules and inspire others to play. At the Dragons, we're lucky to have a strong base of experienced American players alongside a very talented and deep group of Aussie expats. We even have players that were born in places like Denmark, France and Wales.”
“As you know, there was a golden opportunity for the AFL to catch on with US audiences last year when the pandemic put the majority of Northern Hemisphere sports on hiatus. And of course, all footy fans here in the States would love to see Kevin Sheedy's dream come true - for a home-and-away AFL game to be played for premiership points in the US. Hopefully someday.”
When asked about the potential for further growth, Rick believes there is – but with caveats.
“There definitely is. I feel that the problem is that not everyone is always unified in the same direction when it comes to how to grow the sport: do we keep doing grassroots adult leagues? Do we focus on recruiting from specific sports, like rugby or Gaelic football? Do we get Aussie rules exposed on university campuses? There's no perfect answer and no strategy that automatically works in every US city. LA has thousands of Aussie expats; Salt Lake City doesn't.”
“I'm very encouraged by the growth of the footy podcast market here in the States, some of which I've been involved with myself. More and more newcomers are really sinking their teeth into the sport, and even if they aren't able to start their own USAFL club from scratch, they're still able to watch the AFL on TV and get involved with the sport as a spectator.”
Women's footy is growing at a great rate worldwide. Rick shares that belief around growth, but is circumspect around the challenges that will still impact the women’s game moving forward.
“There's been highs and lows. The Dragons were first starting to get interest from women footballers at around the same time I joined the footy club in 2016. There were a number of passionate and dedicated players, and we wound up doing a handful of women's footy skills sessions as part of our broader Ladies' Day home game festivities. But then, the majority of the female players moved away or had to retire and the coach moved back to Perth. So, we're hoping to restart women's footy in LA in the near future.”
Fans are attracted to Australian Football for a variety of reasons. Rick is no different and is happy sharing his thoughts on how he became “hooked”.
“Aussie Rules is as physically demanding of a sport as you can find. It's also got such a unique identity that makes it unlike any other sport in the world. It doesn't matter how big or how small you are, but it still requires a lot of finesse and intelligence in addition to athletic skills. You might not notice it at first glance if you think of the sport as "organized chaos" -- which is frequently the response I get when I show footy highlights to curious friends.”
“The mateship and camaraderie really is second to none. You get to bond with your teammates and have their backs, both on and off the field. And win or lose, you can have a few beers afterwards.”
Recently, Rick came out to Australia to learn more about the game. He proudly opened up about the why’s and wherefores of his decision and how it has been utilised to further grow the game in Los Angeles, and by extension the USA as a whole.
“Playing in Melbourne, the birthplace of footy, was a wonderful experience and something I won't soon forget. Caroline Springs Football Club had a sister-club partnership with the Dragons, largely due to the work of Dre Jansen. Dre plays fullback for the Dragons and played most of his junior footy in Caroline Springs in the Western Region Football League. Moving to the US, he was very impressed by how the Dragons' club culture was very similar to the culture at Caroline Springs.”
“A couple of other Dragons players had played local footy in Australia previously, but I was the first to take advantage of that sister club partnership and I played there in the 2019 season. I made a ton of lifelong friends at Caroline Springs and I loved developing my own game and learning new skills. Hopefully in the future, once the Australian borders reopen, we can send more Dragons players down there and give them the same experience.”
As a player, writer, viewer and advocate, Rick has already contributed to the game. It is hoped that Rick, and those before him and since, who have made these forays into the world of “Aussie Rules” will by extension grow the game further, developing what already exists and influencing whose to come.