Anyone over 50 might remember the early days of ESPN, watching in the middle of the night when a bloated ball was kicked around by rugged, blue-collar athletes whose success was signaled by men who looked like they had just come out of a science lab.
Today that odd game – Australian rules football – may provide American sports gamblers with something to bet on while waiting for the coronavirus to run its course.
The worldwide crisis is a reality down under, too. But in the face of divided public opinion, the Australian Football League announced that it would open an abbreviated 2020 season on time Thursday at 4:25 a.m. EDT. In their traditional opener the Richmond Tigers, the defending champions – a.k.a. “premiers” – face the overmatched Carlton Blues in front of 100,000 empty seats at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Eighteen teams, 10 based in Melbourne, begin what is normally a 22-game season with nine games between Thursday and Sunday. But because of the pandemic, the AFL is cutting its season to 17 games per team, leaving the door open to a minimum, two-week break in case anyone on any team tests positive for the coronavirus. Playing time has also been reduced 20 percent.
Translating Aussie rules for American bettors requires a knowledge of a few basics, which include the fact that there are no key betting numbers as there are in our football, and that Australians bet money lines far more than point spreads. (That does not mean that we have to follow their lead.)
I was privileged to live in Melbourne for three years (2004-07) and visited there before and since. In person I took in 162 matches, sometimes five in one weekend. I was there for four Grand Finals, their version of the Super Bowl. Even after all those games and more than 40 years of watching the sport on TV – nowadays on FS2 and Fox Soccer Plus – it is still a challenge to try and make money betting on the AFL.
The object of the game
Australian rules football is not to be confused with rugby or, as is the distinction north of the Murray River in Australia, “rugby league.” In fact, the National Rugby League started its season last week, mostly around Sydney. That sport is more linear; Aussie rules football is free flowing. Think of the difference between classical music and jazz.
In the AFL the football and the field are shaped like ovals. The ball – or “footy” – is made more for kicking than a U.S. football. The game goes at a pace more like basketball than our game, especially since the 18 players a side cover a field as many as 200 yards long and 170 yards wide.
At each end of the ground are four posts with seven yards between each one. The idea of every trip is to kick the ball between the two big posts in the middle. That is a goal – worth six points. An off-target kick that goes between the outer posts is called a behind – worth one point.
Like basketball, most of the game is about passing, finding open space and getting to the other end of the playing surface. In Aussie rules there are only two legal ways to pass what is also called the Sherrin. A player may kick it in any direction to a teammate. If it is caught at least 15 meters away on the fly – or on the “full” as Australians say – it is called “taking the mark.” The player catching the ball, even if it is intercepted by an opponent, may keep playing or, instead, stop and take a free kick with everyone required to give him 10 meters of space. Punching the ball with a fist is also legal – that is called a “hand pass” – but play does not stop, and the defense is allowed to stay as close as it wants to the player catching the ball.
One- or two-handed throws are not allowed. If a carrier is tackled, he is caught “holding the ball” (if there were a crowd, it would yell “Ball!”), and that is a turnover. It is like playing hot potato.
With players wearing only a singlet called a guernsey, short shorts, a jock strap, socks and shoes, the game’s hallmark is its lack of padding. Although it appears at times as if all collisions are fair, contact is not allowed with an opponent’s head or neck, atop the shoulders or below the knees. Fouls are penalized with free kicks; an umpire (they are not called referees) will point in the direction of the team being rewarded. More egregious violations turn into 50-meter penalties.
If the ball goes out of bounds, it is put back in play with a boundary throw-in by an umpire regardless of who put it over the line. That is unless it was done on purpose, or if the ball was kicked out on the fly, er, “full.” In that case a free kick is awarded.
Normally, the game has four 20-minute quarters with the clock stopping usually only for goals, behinds, when the ball goes out of bounds and when an umpire decides to stop play and resume it with what looks like a jump ball. Because the pandemic may lead the AFL to condense the number of days between games, quarters have been reduced to 16 minutes each. There are usually five-minute breaks after the first and third quarters and 20 minutes at halftime. If a regular-season game results a tie at the end the fourth quarter, it remains a draw.
Each end of the field has a 50-meter arc that may remind Americans of the three-point line in basketball, but it is merely a guideline. There are no extra rewards for kicks from downtown. In fact, most of the scoring is done from “inside the 50.” Free kicks from marks taken or fouls called inside the arc are usually filled with anticipation of a possible goal.
The game is high scoring; the average AFL team scored 11.6 goals and 80 points per match last year, but that was with 20-minute quarters.
Who are the 2020 favorites?
William Hill makes Richmond ( 325) the favorite to win its second consecutive premiership and its third in the last four years. Excelling on a Tigers team that is deep and experienced at every position, midfielder Dustin Martin is a two-time Grand Final MVP. He also won the 2017 Brownlow Medal, a season MVP type of award that is voted on, believe it or not, by umpires. The Brownlow is one of the most heavily bet futures plays in Australia.
Like the biggest stars in the game, Martin is an “on-baller,” much like being a point guard in basketball or a forward in hockey. The best of these stars are medium-height, cat-quick game-changers who work the ball up and down the field and set up forwards who hopefully take marks inside the 50 and score goals.
The next shortest-priced teams include the West Coast Eagles, based near Perth and led by defender Shannon Hurn and Jeremy McGovern; the Collingwood Magpies, based in Melbourne and led by ruckman (big man among midfielders) Brodie Grundy; and the Greater Western Sydney Giants, who feature last year’s league-leading goal scorer Jeremy Cameron.
The full list of William Hill Nevada’s AFL premiership futures:
325 Richmond Tigers
500 West Coast Eagles
650 Collingwood Magpies
750 Greater Western Sydney Giants
1000 Brisbane Lions
1000 Geelong Cats
1100 Western Bulldogs
1800 Hawthorn Hawks
2500 Essendon Bombers
2500 Melbourne Demons
3000 North Melbourne Kangaroos
3000 Port Adelaide Power
3500 Carlton Blues
3500 St. Kilda Saints
4000 Adelaide Crows
4000 Sydney Swans
5000 Fremantle Dockers
20000 Gold Coast Suns
A parlay play or one by one?
It certainly is tempting to look at the prices for Week 1 – or “Round 1” as they say in the AFL – and put together a parlay card with the biggest favorites. Richmond (–300), Essendon (–220), Port Adelaide (–215) and West Coast (–300) combine to be a 279 opportunity in a four-team play this week.
But locks are not always what they seem in the AFL, where tipping contests may be more popular than NCAA brackets. They last all season and require the most casual of players to merely pick straight-up winners. The coveted “9” – the perfect week – is elusive. The “5” and the “6” show up far more often on the big grids that hang in offices and barrooms.
Also popular but tough to cash is the weekly $5 or $10 lottery-type ticket that uses the same rules as tipping contests. Everyone with a “9” shares the jackpot in what is a glorified parlay that is tougher to win than it may look.
The moral to the story: Bettors tempted by parlays may want to look instead at round-robins.
With that, here are the nine games in Round 1 (showing opening money lines in parentheses) with –110 point spreads and totals from William Hill Nevada, which said that its mobile apps remain active during the casino shutdown. The spreads and totals were posted before the quarters were reduced from 20 to 16 minutes each. After the change was announced at 4:45 a.m. EDT Wednesday, it was not immediately clear whether existing bets would be action.
Thursday 4:25 a.m. EDT
CARLTON ( 250) o/u 169½
at RICHMOND (–300) –21½
Melbourne Cricket Ground
Healthier than it was when it tied for first in the regular season and eventually won the premiership, Richmond seems a lock to beat perennially rebuilding, cross-town rival Carlton. Yes, the Blues won 6 of 11 after David Teague took over as coach at mid-season last year, but most of those wins were against fellow bottom-feeders. Throw in new injuries to key forwards, and it could be a long stretch of early-season games for Carlton. The game features two of the top four betting choices at one Australian bookmaker to win this year’s Brownlow. Martin is 800; Carlton’s 6-foot-5 midfielder-forward Patrick Cripps finished tied for third last year and is 600 despite a lack of supporting talent.
Friday 4:50 a.m. EDT
COLLINGWOOD (–130) –3½
at WESTERN BULLDOGS ( 110) o/u 178½
Marvel Stadium, Melbourne
Collingwood is technically a road favorite, but both teams are Melbourne-based, so this matchup at the retractable-roof stadium in Melbourne’s Docklands is like a Lakers-Clippers game. The Bulldogs won 8 of 11 to finish 2019 and are a sharp value play at 11-1 to win the 2020 Grand Final. In spite of their talent the Magpies had trouble scoring last year, and their forwards disappeared at inopportune times. A lightning rod for love and hate like the New York Yankees, the Magpies are more on the field like the Los Angeles Dodgers, teasing their backers throughout the year before falling short in the postseason. They traditionally suffer from what their detractors call the “Colliewobbles,” winning only two premierships in the last 62 years. As for the short term, this one has stay-away written all over it.
Friday 10:45 p.m. EDT
FREMANTLE ( 190) o/u 175½
at ESSENDON (–220) –15½
Marvel Stadium, Melbourne
Essendon brings back young midfielder Devon Smith from a season-long injury in 2019 to face an offensively challenged Dockers side that travels across country with new coach Justin Longmuir. But wise guys in Australia think that Fremantle could slow the pace of the game enough to make it interesting late. The Dockers also have the reigning Brownlow Medal holder in midfielder Nat Fyfe, the 550 favorite to win it for a third time. Freo plus the points appear to be the bet. The under was already worth a look even before the quarters were reduced to 16 minutes each.
Saturday 1:35 a.m. EDT
SYDNEY ( 120) o/u 175½
at ADELAIDE (–140) –5½
In a match between premiership long shots, the homestanding Crows are like the 76ers enduring “The Process,” and their future is not now. Sydney’s big-name forward Buddy Franklin, 33, is an aging presence on an otherwise young team that was competitive in most of its losses last year. Despite the travel, the Swans plus the points look like the play.
Saturday 4:25 a.m. EDT
PORT ADELAIDE (–215) –15½
at GOLD COAST ( 185) o/u 170½
Metricon Stadium, Gold Coast
The Suns are the longest shots to win the flag (another word for the premiership), and for good reason. They do not appear to have improved much from 2019, when they were 3-19 and beaten by an average of 40 points. By comparison the Power is clearly better, even though it has been slow to replace aging standouts Travis Boak and Robbie Gray. Port may be nothing more than a .500 team this season, but it should be three goals better than the Suns, even for an interstate road game. Even with the shorter match, lay the points.
Saturday 4:25 a.m. EDT
GEELONG ( 150) o/u 177½
at GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY (–170) –9½
Giants Stadium, Sydney
The Giants begin the season at home, playing with the conflicted memory of rising from sixth in the regular season to make the 2019 Grand Final only to be blown out by Richmond. They lost midfielder-forward Tim Taranto, whose father is Texan, to a preseason shoulder injury, but GWS has the depth to recover. Geelong will not feel at home whenever it leaves its narrow ground an hour’s drive from Melbourne. Thanks to that unique, home-field advantage and a strong defense, the Cats finished tied for first in last year’s regular season. They are led by on-balling forward Patrick Dangerfield, the 2016 Brownlow winner who is 7-1 to earn it again. Whether Geelong can overcome losing midfielder Tim Kelly in an off-season trade to the Eagles is a question than will hang over “The Cattery,” especially early this season. The lean might be to the GWS money line, but that is a steep price. This game is best left alone.
Saturday 10:10 p.m. EDT
ST. KILDA (–125) –2½
at NORTH MELBOURNE ( 105) o/u 186½
Marvel Stadium, Melbourne
North made a coaching change midway through last season that turned a 2-7 start into an 8-5 finish. But for this all-Melbourne matchup, the Kangas will be without 6-foot-7 forward Ben Brown, who has a leg injury that will cost him at least a few weeks. Bettors backing the Saints are counting on off-season trades to make a big difference to a team that may have overachieved last year going 9-13. Taking the Saints and laying 3½ points could be worth the –110 bet.
Sunday 12:20 a.m. EDT
BRISBANE (–130) –4½
at HAWTHORN ( 110) o/u 176½
Melbourne Cricket Ground
Brisbane hopes that last year’s breakthrough by young players led by Lachie Neal (11-1 for the 2020 Brownlow) continues this year starting with its interstate trip to play the Hawks. Although the Lions shared the regular season’s best record with Geelong and Richmond, bettors are bullish on a Hawks team that gets 2018 Brownlow winner Tom Mitchell (9-1 this year) back from a broken leg that cost him all of 2019. Taking the underdog Hawks to win at home looks like the way to go.
Sunday 3:20 a.m. EDT
MELBOURNE ( 250) o/u 176½
at WEST COAST (–300) –21½
Optus Stadium, Perth
The 2018 premiers look every bit worthy of being a heavy favorite and a bookend to parlay cards. In addition to Hurn and McGovern, the Eagles add Kelly from Geelong and get ruckman Nic Naitanui back from ACL tears in both knees. The big question, as always for West Coast, is getting the better of one-on-one battles for the ball – or “contested footy.” The Demons were the personification of underachievers last year – think Cleveland Browns. Traded from Gold Coast to Melbourne before last season, highly paid defender Steven May was a disappointment on the field – at least when he was not hurt. If these two met in the postseason, it might be a better match. But not this time. And not in Western Australia.
Finally, as U.S. bettors unfamiliar with the AFL cash their tickets, they may be caught off guard thinking that they had awakened from the coronavirus nightmare into a dream – hearing the Notre Dame fight song or “Yankee Doodle.” But it won’t be a renaissance for the NCAA Tournament. It’s just that a lot of AFL teams stole American songs, changed the lyrics and made them their own. The winning team’s song is played at the end of each game, so presuming FS1 and Fox Soccer Plus do not pull the plug the moment the match ends (a big “if”), then there will be a sense of déjà vu for unknowing fans.
Now if the Aussie players maintain the tradition of locking arms and forming a circle to sing those songs, then let the social-distancing questions fly. And pray against all odds that no one else catches the bug.