Postcard from the US: Keeping community camaraderie alive through Aussie sports

Paul O’Keeffe is an Advance member based in the US.

By Paul O’Keeffe | Contributor

As expats when we live abroad, we all miss things that are uniquely culturally Australian (besides the Tim Tams and pies!). For me it was the involvement in Community Sports of all kinds, and especially having a kick of the footy.

In 1997 I was living in the Midwest and was able to connect with other Aussies across the country for a kick. Over a beer (so many good things happen over a beer!) we decided to start a league and the United States Australian Football League (USAFL) was born. From very humble beginnings we have grown to over 40 clubs and 60 teams (both men and women) and hold the largest weekend footy tournament in the world (including Australia). Our National Championships host over 1,250 players with 5 fields of continuous play. We will play over 60 games in a weekend. It is a true festival of footy.

When we started our player base was 80% Australians. Today, less than 20% of our players are Australians. When you think about truly unique Australian cultural exports there is not much more unique that Aussie Rules Football. We are bringing the Australian culture to America through sports.

From the beginning our goal was the bring the concept of community sport to Australia. The concept of organised participatory sport in America is rare with most players stopping after High School or College. We recruit players from all walks of life and all sports background. In good Aussie spirit everyone is welcome. Our clubs, across the county, are all locally based and have created their own local network.

USAFL Founders Rich Mann, Steve Arnott and Paul O’Keeffe have recently founded the USAFL Foundation.

The pandemic has been difficult for the league with no organised games in 2020. This year we are starting mini regional tournaments in August and plan to host Nationals this October 15-17 in Austin, Texas. Our established players are hankering to get back out on the field, however missing a year of footy has impacted our recruitment numbers and we expect it will take 2-3 years to get back up to our previous numbers.

We were fortunate, due to good governance, that we had built an emergency fund, so we were able to financially survive the pandemic. As we look to the future, we launched the USAFL Foundation in late 2020 with the aim of raising $2.5 million as part of our 25th Anniversary in 2023. This money will be invested, and the proceeds used to further develop the sport in the US. This is a long-term strategy to Secure of Future for the next 25 years.

I have been gone from home (YES, Australia is still home) for 30 years but I am still very much an Australian. I have been proud to bring our game to the US and to watch it grow. I plan to continue to be involved (I still pull on the boots every year at Nationals) and ensure the next generation of Americans get to experience the thrill and the camaraderie of our great game.

Are you a global Aussie looking to get involved in USAFL? Connect with Paul!

Paul “Plugger” O’Keeffe is the Founding President at USAFL and Chair at the USAFL Foundation. An AFL fanatic, his tireless efforts, personal contributions and sacrifice over the last 20 years has lead to USAFL becoming recognised on an international level with over 70 male and female clubs. Register as a player here!