Australian rules football is a sport that originated in the state of Victoria, Australia. Today it is the most popular spectator sport throughout Australia with the exception of the states of Queensland and New South Wales, where rugby league dominates, as well as Canberra, where rugby union and rugby league vie for supremacy.
The origins of Australian rules football are unclear, though at first glance it appears to be a cross between rugby football and association football (soccer). A game called "football" was known to have been played in the state of Victoria as early as 1841, though the rules of this game have been lost to history. Some contend that it can trace its origin to 1858, when a cricketer attempted to develop of new code of football to keep cricketers fit during the off-season in the winter. In any case, the first set of rules for a uniquely Australian code of football were written down in 1859 at the Melbourne Football Club, and a copy of these rules still survives. Modern Australian rules football likely evolved from this set of rules over the years.
Australian rules football is played on an elliptical field 135-185 metres long, and 110-155 metres wide, known as an oval. This makes the playing field of Australian rules football one of the largest of any spectator sport, far larger than that of rugby football, association football or American football. Games are played between teams of 18 players with four interchanges (substitutes); one exception is AFL Women's, in which each side has 16 players and five interchanges.
Similar to rugby football and American football, Australian rules football is a full contact sport, meaning that players may be tackled to the ground, though tackles have to be made between the shoulders and the knees. If the tackle is legal, players are required to pass the ball immediately when they are tackled. Players typically run while carrying the ball, but are required to bounce the ball every 15 metres. Players may pass the ball to another player by hitting it with a clenched fist in any direction, but may not throw the ball. Alternatively, players may also kick the ball to another player, and if the ball travels at least 50 metres and the receiving player catches the ball cleanly without it touching the ground or any other player, the receiving player is said to have taken a mark, and may kick the ball unimpeded by the opposition from the spot where he was marked.
The ends of the oval consist of two tall posts called the goal posts, and two shorter posts flanking them called the behind posts. Kicking the ball between the two goal posts results in a goal which is worth six points. Failing which, kicking the ball between the goal post and the behind post, or having the ball touch the goal post or another player on the way in results in a behind, which is worth one point. If the defending team puts the ball in between its own goal posts, or between its own goal post and behind post, this results in a behind being scored by the attacking team.
For any rule infringement, a free kick is typically awarded by an umpire to the opposing team, during which a player may kick the ball unimpeded by the opposition. For more serious infringements, the umpire may award a 50-metre penalty, which is a free kick taken 50 metres closer to the goal posts from the spot the infringement was committed.
Australian rules has aspects of both free and limited substitution. Interchanges may be made at any time during the game, even during open play; however, players must enter and exit through the "interchange area", a 15-metre stretch of the field between the two benches at the centre of the field (with exceptions in cases of serious injury), and the new player cannot enter the field of play until the player being replaced has left the field. Players are free to return to the game after being interchanged, but each team is limited to a set number of player rotations. In the AFL, the limit of player rotations is 75 per match; state and local leagues may have different limits on the number of interchange players and rotations. AFL Women's has no limit on player rotations; the AFL chose not to enforce a rotation limit in its women's league because that league plays during the main AFL's offseason in the southern summer.
Australian Football League
The Australian Football League (AFL) is the premier professional competition in the sport. The competition originated in Victoria, and was originally called the Victorian Football League (VFL). Though the competition is still dominated by Victorian teams, it has since expanded and now features teams from all the states of Australia except Tasmania. Tickets to most games are reasonably priced, especially when compared to ticket prices at soccer matches in Europe, or basketball or American football games in the United States. However, tickets to some games, and most finals matches, especially the Grand Final, are more expensive. Some games may not have tickets available to the public, as club, ground or league members normally have priority access to tickets. Australian rules football fans are generally well behaved, and crowd violence is extremely rare, even when the fans of two bitter rivals are sitting together. As such, unlike at soccer matches in Europe, there are no separate sections for the fans of opposing teams at AFL games.
Traditionally, games were only played on Saturday afternoons, but night football now is played most Friday and Saturday nights, with the occasional Thursday or Monday night game. The AFL season normally starts at the end of March and concludes with the AFL Grand Final, which is held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on the last Saturday in September or first Saturday in October. The AFL Grand Final is a major part of Australian culture and the most important game on the Australian sporting calendar, with the largest attendance and television audience of any Australian sporting event.
Preseason games are played throughout February and March, and are often played at smaller venues in regional cities.
The league is kept competitive through the use of a draft system and salary caps. As part of the draft system, teams that finish lower on the table are typically allowed to pick their drafts first, which ensures that the top teams do not monopolise the top players.
In Australian TV and newspapers, most teams are referred to by their nicknames.
The sport has by far the most tradition and lore in the state of Victoria and even though not all teams play at the places that still lend them their name, geographic rivalries remain fierce.
- Carlton (the Blues).
- Collingwood (the Magpies or the Pies).
- Essendon (the Bombers).
- Geelong (the Cats). The only Victorian team based outside the city of Melbourne.
- Hawthorn (the Hawks).
- Melbourne (the Demons).
- North Melbourne (the Kangaroos; sometimes the Shinboners).
- Richmond (the Tigers).
- St Kilda (the Saints).
- Western Bulldogs (the Bulldogs).
New South Wales
Both NSW teams in the league brand themselves with their nicknames. While the formal name of the Greater Western Sydney team is "Greater Western Sydney Football Club", it consistently uses "Giants" as part of the team's brand. The formal name of the Sydney team is "Sydney Swans". Fans and media reports will usually leave out the geographic identifiers.
The West Coast team is formally known as "West Coast Eagles", with "West Coast" often dropped in media reports and among fans.
In addition to the fully professional Australian Football League, each state has a semi-professional state league, and numerous regional leagues. The AFL typically recruits new players from these leagues during the AFL draft.
With the exception of the Northern Territory Football League (NTFL), these lower level leagues also run from March or April until September The NTFL operates from October until March, to align with their wetter months.
Most lower level leagues play senior games on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, with junior games in the morning. Due to the large size of the ovals, night games are not common, as few clubs can afford to erect and operate lighting of a sufficient standard.
Major lower level leagues
- Victorian Football League
- South Australian National Football League
- West Australian Football League
- North East Australian Football League
- Northern Territory Football League
- Tasmanian Football League
- Queensland Australian Football League
- Sydney AFL
- TAC Cup (junior)
- AFL Under 18 Championships
The AFL launched a national women's competition, known as AFL Women's, in 2017, with all teams established by AFL (men's) clubs. Eight teams competed in the first two seasons: 2017 and 2018. The league added two more teams in 2019, added four more in 2020, and will reach its planned final size in 2023 when the remaining four AFL men's clubs launch women's sides. The season is much shorter than that of the men's AFL, running through February and March. The league has played in a single table throughout its history except in 2019 and the scrapped 2020 season, in which it split into two equally-sized conferences.
The first three regular seasons consisted of seven rounds; the 2020 season was intended to expand to eight rounds but was canceled due to COVID-19. The 2021 season expanded further to nine rounds, with matches scheduled around a hodgepodge of state- and local-level COVID restrictions. The finals series features the top six teams on the league table (or "ladder" in Australian English). The first round of the finals consists of "qualifying finals" (quarterfinals), involving the teams placed third through sixth. The winners advance to face the top two seeds in the preliminary finals, leading up to the Grand Final.
Women's rules are largely identical to men's except for the game duration, number of players per side, and interchange rules. Each quarter in AFL Women's is 15 minutes instead of the 20 in the men's AFL. As noted above, teams consist of 16 players and five interchanges, instead of the 18 players and four interchanges in the men's AFL. Additionally, AFL Women's teams have no limit on the number of substitutions during a match.
- Current clubs
- Adelaide (splits its home schedule between Adelaide and the Northern Territory cities of Alice Springs and Darwin)
- Gold Coast
- Greater Western Sydney
- North Melbourne (splits its home schedule between Melbourne and the Tasmanian cities of Hobart and Launceston)
- St Kilda
- West Coast
- Western Bulldogs
- Coming in 2023: Essendon, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide, Sydney