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A small group of guys, beer in hand and smeared with dirt after a game of "footy," stood in the dark behind a pole barn in Ohio and dreamed up the U.S. Australian Football League.

Milwaukee consultant helps launch

U.S. Australian Football League

Brad Hoeschen


A small group of guys, beer in hand and smeared with dirt after a game of "footy," stood in the dark behind a pole barn in Ohio and dreamed up the U.S. Australian Football League.

There were no ownership negotiations, television contracts or bloated player salaries involved. It was to be much more grassroots than that.

Paul O'Keeffe had been playing Australian football in the states for about one year, but his entrepreneurial juices started flowing when the idea of an American league began to bloom.

Always thinking of himself as a better administrator than an athlete, the Australian transplant saw the league as a chance to maintain ties with his homeland and combine his love of sport with his knack for planning and organization.

O'Keeffe, a Milwaukee-based consultant with Andersen Consulting, grew up playing sports that were off the beaten path. He liked the idea of taking something obscure, giving it structure and watching it grow.

That desire landed O'Keeffe the title of founding president of the U.S. Australian Football League -- commonly called U.S. Footy by its players -- in late 1996.

The league started with a half-dozen teams. In less than four years, it has grown to include 36 organizations in cities across the country and 14 teams that venture to the national championships in Cincinnati. About 700 people, 60 percent of them Americans, play in the league.

Australian rules football has a bit of a rough reputation in the United States, primarily because of late night broadcasts on ESPN that aired in 1980s. The game, which looks like a soccer-rugby-football highbred to a novice viewer, became known for its vicious contact.

What professional players view as graceful -- leaping on the shoulders of an opponent to intercept the ball -- American viewers took as a hard-hitting game worth a giggle or two on late night TV, O'Keeffe said.

"I understand what the AFL was trying to do with those games," he said. "They were trying to attract an American audience with all of that, but it made it difficult to recruit players."

Some Americans whose only exposure to the game was the whacky games on the ESPN broadcasts were worried injuries would sideline them from their real jobs if they got involved in the league.

"We were trying to promote the athleticism of it, and most people just thought of the wicked hits," he said. "In reality, you have to be very fit because we play four non-stop quarters of 25 minutes each on a field that is 180 yards long and 120 yards wide."

Rather than launch a massive campaign to clean up the reputation of the game, O'Keeffe decided to use a grassroots effort to generate interest.

The American league doesn't want to put any pressure on people interested in starting a team because that is only likely to push them away, he said. Instead, the league lets teams develop slowly and set up games when they can get enough players together. The league also keeps dues low so even the smallest of teams can stay around.

O'Keeffe developed the philosophy after participating in other sports that were outside the mainstream. As a kid in Australia's Outback, O'Keeffe tried fencing and archery, among others. He eventually settled on team handball, a game roughly resembling hockey, but without the ice, sticks and skates. Instead, the game is played in a gymnasium with a ball about the size of a cantaloupe.

O'Keeffe's passion for team handball took him to Iceland, where the game enjoys a substantial following and has both professional and semi-pro leagues. O'Keeffe said he made the journey to see just how good he was.

"I discovered I wasn't all that good, but I learned how to run sporting events and discovered I liked that a lot," he said.

O'Keeffe also met his wife, Julie, an Iowa native, in Iceland, where she was studying the language on a Fulbright Scholarship.

They eventually left Iceland, moved back to Australia for a time and then came to the United States. O'Keeffe settled into a career in consulting, but team handball drew him back for the Olympics. He managed the event at the Atlanta Olympics for about three months.

"I needed to feed that bug one more time," he said.

After that, the U.S. Australian Football League emerged and O'Keeffe became the lead organizer.

He has been careful to keep the league on a grassroots level and never talks about the potential for a professional league in the United States. Americans first need to be comfortable watching the sport before they will pay to sit in the stands and support a local team, he said.

That philosophy makes a lot of sense, said James Gray, a sports lawyer at Pierski, Fitzpatrick & Gray L.L.P. in Milwaukee.

The North American Soccer League tried to debut in the United States about 20 years ago with high-profile international players such as Pelé, but it failed because Americans didn't understand the game, he said.

"You need to create a generation of fans before you can have a professional league," Gray said.

Still, the growth of the league has prompted O'Keeffe to kick around the idea of a full-time executive director for the U.S. Australian Football League.

He has asked the Australian Football League for a $100,000 grant to pay for the executive director and continue funding developmental programs for the sport.

If the money is approved, however, don't expect O'Keeffe to be running the league, which plays most of its games between August and October.

"I don't want to give the impression that I created the league to give myself a job," he said. "Right now, it is fun for me, and if it became a job it wouldn't be fun anymore."

Ultimately, O'Keeffe got involved for the camaraderie. In 1996, he discovered a handful of Australians who had put together a team in Kansas City, and he played with them when he was in town on consulting business.

"It was about packing up my footy boots and giving a kick with my mates," he said. "That is why I started the league, and that is what I want to continue."


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