And there is a lag of at least six weeks between the time a match is played and when we see it. The 1981 season began in Australia on March 28 and ran through the Grand Final on Sept. 26; ESPN started its coverage May 8 and will continue it until Dec. 25. More than half an hour of play in the first two quarters is edited out so that a game will fit into a 90-minute slot. ESPN's Steve Bornstein foresees a time when the lag will be sharply reduced or eliminated entirely and the games carried live.
Luckily for me, I'm a freelance writer and can always catch the action. Occasionally I even get a furtive midweek call from a sympathetic friend: "Doing anything around lunch, mate? I've got the videotape of the game played two Saturdays ago." So off I trek into midtown Manhattan to watch Australian Broadcasting's superb one-hour wrap-up, The Winners, with a couple of other addicts in a nearly deserted screening room. It's not quite like being there, but it sure beats waiting around another month for the ESPN broadcast.
What we addicts see on ESPN are the top Australian teams, all members of the Victorian Football League, which consists of 12 clubs, 11 of them in and around Melbourne. The other, the Cats, is located in the port city of Geelong, an hour's drive away.
Games are played every Saturday afternoon and on the occasional holiday Monday, drawing upwards of 150,000 barrackers (fans) into the league's stadiums—that's roughly 5% of the 2.9 million people who live in the Melbourne area. That isn't surprising, because each club has a fervent local following. Those who miss the live action can watch a two-hour TV show on Sunday nights that features replays, interviews and discussion. Oh to be in Melbourne!
While it's pretty hard to cheer on a favored team from 10,000 miles or so away, it's a safe bet to follow the fortunes of the Collingwood Magpies, which my source, "Down Under," compares with the New York Yankees for depth of talent and the inherent wherewithal to take the Grand Final in any season—they've done it 13 times in all, a total matched by only one other team, the Carlton Blues—or at least to be one of the five teams to make the playoffs. Other traditionally strong teams are the North Melbourne Kangaroos and the Hawthorn Hawks. But, says Down Under, other clubs to watch are Geelong, the Essendon Bombs (a very young team some call the "Bloody Essendon Kids") and the Fitzroy Lions.
As for me I diligently follow North Melbourne, poring over the weekly league statistics that I get by mail. Last season, when I became a barracker, the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1974. This year the 'Roos had a strong start but began to fade in the stretch. Although the playoffs and Grand Final have already been played in Australia, I won't spoil the ending for those who'll watch ESPN and come to share my footy fetish.