An Aussie Rules football guide for dummies

Collingwood's Mason Cox was the second born-and-bred American, after Jason Holmes, to play senior AFL football. Michael Dodge/Getty Image

Are you one of the many who have resorted to a strange Australian game due to a lack of live sport? Are you strangely intrigued, despite not knowing what is going on?

It's Australian rules football, and this is its peak professional men's version: the Australian Football League.

Well, here's a dummies' guide to what you are watching.

Aim of the game?

See those big sticks at either end? The whole objective is to kick the ball through the middle ones without anyone touching it on the way though. That's a goal, which is worth six points, and it can be scored only by kicking it through.

If it goes through the outside sticks or comes off hands, it's a "behind." That's worth one point. Scoreboards then take the form of goals, behinds and total points. When you see 13.10.88, it isn't some sort of programming code. It's 13 goals and 10 behinds for a total of 88 points.

The team with the most points wins the game. Games are played in four quarters.

What are the rules?

Yes, it looks like there are no rules, but there are! However, if you're watching for the first time, don't worry too much about these. It will just get in the way of the fun.

The important things to know are that a catch (a "mark") gives a free possession where the other players can't tackle, and the player can kick or handball with some free space.

Other free possessions, known as "free kicks," come when a tackle is head high, when a player is pushed in the back or front or when a player is tackled and drops the ball or throws it (the tackle gets the "free kick" and the ball).

Players can run anywhere they like, as there is no offside rule or any major restriction on where players run during general play. There are 18 players on the field for each team, with four substitutes who can interchange with those on the field at any time.

There are probably 257 other intricate rules that could be explained, but let's stick to the basics for now.

Where did this game come from?

Although parts of the sport's origins are debated, what is known is that a bunch of gentlemen from the Melbourne Cricket Club decided to invent a game to keep cricketers physically fit during winter, when cricket went into recess.

Aspects of existing sports were used (such as a ball similar to a rugby ball), but the group formed rules that steered away from the English rugby many were familiar with.

One of these gentlemen, Tom Wills, was said to have played a traditional Aboriginal game called "Marngrook" in his youth. Many of the skills of that game appear to have been used in formulating these new rules. This was 1858, and the club that was initially formed, the Melbourne Football Club, still plays in the AFL today and lays claim to being one of the oldest sporting clubs in the world.

Which team should I support?

Ask your Australian friends which team to support, and each one will have an answer for you.

The AFL was born out of the Victorian Football League (VFL), which was the strongest of the state-based leagues that ran around the country for 100 years. About 30 years ago, the VFL became the AFL. When you pick a team, there will be cities you recognise: Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. But there will also be peculiar names, such as Carlton, Richmond, Essendon and Collingwood, inner Melbourne suburbs that grew to be titans of the VFL and remain powerful clubs in the AFL today, much like Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham represent London.

In all, there are 10 teams from Melbourne and its surrounding regions, reflecting the economic hub of the league. For reasons we won't try to explain here, Australian rules is the major winter sport in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and the island state of Tasmania. Rugby league is the number one sport in Sydney and Brisbane, but despite this, there are two AFL franchises in each of these regions, and not one in Tasmania ... but that's a whole other story.

Is there an American connection?

There are some quirky American connections to this Australian game, the most obvious in the form of Collingwood forward Mason Cox. Cox was a walk-on basketball player at Oklahoma State University, and he attended an AFL talent combine in Los Angeles in 2014.

Collingwood liked what they saw, and today Cox has become a solid player on one of the AFL's strongest teams. His five goals in the 2018 preliminary final against rival Richmond piloted the Magpies into the Grand Final. But if you decide to support Collingwood, please be aware that you will alienate all non-Collingwood-supporting Australian friends.

As bizarre as it sounds, there are U.S. national men's and women's Australian rules football teams. The USA Revolution (men's) and USA Freedom (women's) compete in the International Cup every three years. Players are picked from USAFL teams across the U.S. You can go watch or play for your local team, whether it be the Denver Bulldogs, Arizona Hawks, New York Magpies or Minnesota Freeze.

Do they have crowds?

Yes! These games that you're watching -- particularly in the opening rounds, when hope is high -- would usually be played in front of packed stadiums. Matches in Adelaide and Perth regularly sell out their 50,000- and 60,000-seat stadiums, and the mecca of football, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (another contradiction we won't try to explain), holds the Super Bowl of the AFL each year, the Grand Final, which draws 100,000.

Have we seen this before?

Depending on your age, possibly. In the early days of ESPN, before the channel had many live sporting rights to fill its schedule, the-then VFL was a regular staple on its air.

In the oral history of ESPN, "Those Guys Have All the Fun," its initial position was communicated by authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales.

"Eight thousand, seven hundred, and sixty hours to fill. To realize his dream of a 24/7 network, Bill Rasmussen [founder of ESPN] would need a much better recipe than the motley stew he'd prepared to air so far: Australian rules football, slow-pitch softball, Irish bicycling and Munster hurling."

Through the early-to-mid-'80s, there was a small cult following of the game that forever links the sport with the early days of ESPN.

Why are they playing amid the coronavirus pandemic?

The season began in mid-March in front of empty stadiums as the COVID-19 crisis started to hit. After one round the league was suspended. But over two months on, Australia's swift and strong action to combat the pandemic, has seen infection rates plummet, and society beginning to open up again.

Given the relaxing of restrictions, and that there are no players known to have been infected, the approach has been to play in front of empty stadiums to fulfill TV obligations and lessen the financial blow the clubs and league could take, in line with other sports beginning to emerge from the pandemic.

Individual states are easing things even more with small numbers of fans allowed in venues from round 2, with the number likely to increase as we move into July.

The season has been extended into October to allow for the hiatus, with each team playing each other once, and the quarters shortened to allow for reduced fitness levels due to training restrictions.

But after a barren two months, the footy is back! Time to enjoy the chaos of Australian rules football.