The 2016 college football season kicks off on Friday, but the opening game won’t take place in a traditionally football-mad locale like Alabama or Texas. Instead, California and Hawaii will start their seasons in Sydney, Australia.
It’s been nearly 30 years since college football visited Australia. In 1987, BYU outlasted a 1-11 Colorado State team in a 30-26 victory that was seen by only 7,652 fans in Melbourne. Interest in the game, known locally as gridiron, has picked up since then; organizers expect a crowd of more than 65,000 for Friday’s Sydney Cup.
But why Australia?
1. To re-introduce the sport to the country
Bringing the sport to Australia was a labor of love for Colin Scotts. Scotts was the first Australian football player to earn a scholarship in the States when he turned his rugby union skill into a full ride at Hawaii in 1983. Now, he’s the game’s ambassador. The former defensive lineman is hoping this weekend’s game can add a new level of exposure beyond what expanded cable packages have added in the past two decades.
There has been an eruption in the last five to ten years — Nintendo, watching Fox Sports, and social media have absolutely captivated the imagination of Australians. We’re absolutely eating and breathing NBA, NFL, you name it. We’ve just fallen in love with American culture and American sports. And the world has shrunk. We really believe with the wave of interest in Gridiron, we can put on a great show. Starting with a college game and hopefully make it into an annual event, or at least bring the NFL down. It’s exciting.
Friday’s contest isn’t the first to take place outside of the United States. Harvard used to frequent Montreal in the 1870s to best McGill University in a series of games that often had 1-0 finals. LSU and Tulane took trips to Havana to play Cuban teams in the early 1900s. In 1976, Texas A&M-Kingsville and Henderson State introduced American football to Europe in a tour where the two teams played each other five times in a single month (Kingsville won all five). Over more than 140 years, countries ranging from Italy to Ireland to Tanzania all got in on the action.
The showdown between Cal and Hawaii, however, will only be the third time the game’s been played in a land Down Under. It will be the sport’s first trip to Sydney. Some locals are as curious about the sport as they are confused. As James Dator points out, massive college athletic programs and the culture they breed are foreign to Australia.
Bringing Cal and Hawaii to town will allow local access to ease into the sport in a way more dedicated fanbases of Notre Dame or Penn State may not have. Two teams used to playing the late game during east coast broadcasts will go even further on Friday when they kick off the Sydney Cup a full day ahead of the Eastern Standard Time.
2. To get two college football programs PAID
Of course, Friday’s matchup isn’t just a boon for Australia. There’s plenty of value for the two competing programs and college football as a whole. California is guaranteed a seven-figure paycheck to help ease the pain of a 28-hour round trip voyage. Hawaii is also expected to turn a profit on the experience.
For California and Hawaii, the far-away neutral site provides a way to expose their programs to a nation of more than 23 million potential fans. That means selling more t-shirts and merchandise — a potential market that promises slower growth but longer-lasting effects down the line. It also means getting a leg up on recruiting a fertile new ground for college football talent.
3. To tap into a recruiting ground filled with emerging young athletes
There’s a definite connection between Oceania and the NCAA’s most powerful sport. Australian punters have proliferated the game at the college and professional levels. Approximately 3,600 miles east, the tiny island of Samoa is the home to the bloodlines of stalwarts like Troy Polamalu, Marcus Mariota and Junior Seau. Even Tonga is getting in on the action, sending a 410-pound lineman to BYU in 2015.
Hawaii already has an Aussie on its roster; defensive end Max Hendrie will have the opportunity to play in front of his hometown crowd. Cal only has one international player on the team — Canadian kicker Gabe Siemieniec — but stands to add more in the following years after playing in front of nearly 70,000 Australian fans.
4. For television
The profit Cal and Hawaii will see immediately following their matchup comes from the sponsorship and broadcasting rights cash that flows with having the first game of the 2016 college football season. Though the game doesn’t have a big name sponsor like Chick-fil-A or Allstate behind it, smaller deals with sponsors TEG and TLA Worldwide ensure the game won’t be brand free. As far as television goes, the Sydney Cup will be broadcast by Fox Sports thanks to its Pac-12 contract, but broadcast in primetime to Americans on ESPN. These games have been a windfall for advertisers and teams in the past; as a result, expect more wacky neutral site, early-season games in the future.