While the cricket season winds down and footy ramps up, there are other sports beginning to make a dent on Melbourne’s congested sporting scene. DAVID SCHOUT looks at three traditionally American sports and their efforts to compete with the big boys.
IF you'd walked into a Melbourne pub last Monday you could've been forgiven for thinking that Americanisation of our culture had gone too far.
Buffalo wings were being served by the dozen, while Budweiser flowed from beer taps accustomed to pouring Carlton Draught.
Melburnians and American expats packed into these venues to cheer on either the Baltimore Ravens or the San Francisco 49ers.
That was Super Bowl Monday in Australia.
No. XLVII in fact, or for those not used to the American tendency to use Roman numerals for sporting events, the 47th time America's best football teams had fought out the nation's top prize.
The popularity of the Super Bowl in Melbourne has grown exponentially in recent years and highlights a growing acceptance of American sports in the 'sporting capital of the world'.
Berwick gridiron coach Mel Martin was surprised by what he saw on Monday.
"I couldn't believe it this year," he says.
"We used to gather around a pub TV that was showing it, but now it seems like they [Super Bowl parties] are everywhere."
The former Victorian and Australian gridiron coach says the increased awareness of the sport is due to TV and video games.
Gridiron is relatively new to Australia. Competitive games started in Australia in 1983 and in Victoria grew to a 14-team competition by the late '80s.
Martin, who now coaches the Berwick Miners Gridiron Club, says the current wave of interest — about 60 or 70 expressions of interest to play every pre-season — is similar to that in the '80s.
"When I first became involved in the game I couldn't believe how popular it was. I went to the 1989 grand final [Vic Bowl] and the old Olympic Park stadium was full — it held about 6000 people."
However, in 1995 Gridiron Victoria decided to make the winter game a spring fixture.
Martin says with this move came a lack of grounds and a 12-month hiatus.
But last month, the league welcomed its ninth and 10th teams to the Victorian competition.
Three of the current clubs — Berwick Miners, Croydon Rangers and Monash Warriors — are in the south-eastern suburbs.
Martin says a number of factors draw Australian players to the game.
"They're attracted by the physical aspects. What I hear from players who switch from AFL or rugby backgrounds is that they just want a change."
He concedes gridiron will always be a niche sport. "If I'm 100 per cent honest, I'd say yes. The AFL has a massive stranglehold. Rugby union and rugby league are also developing and we're probably the fourth code behind them."
Ice hockey is another sport starting to make its mark in Victoria.
Until three years ago, national league games in Melbourne were played at an overused, outdated rink in Oakleigh where you'd be lucky to spot a few hundred diehard fans.
Now, the two Melbourne teams — the Ice and the Mustangs — play at a plush 1000-seat Docklands stadium in front of a dedicated support base.
The frenetically-paced sport has a surprisingly long history in Australia dating back to 1904, when players used field hockey sticks and a ball on the ice.
It was not until this century, however, that the sport began to gain traction in Australia.
In 2000, the Australian Ice Hockey League was formed and has grown to a nine-team competition that has lifted its profile not only in Melbourne but around the nation.
Melbourne Mustangs forward Brendan McDowell says the importance of the Ice House Docklands stadium and the AIHL in planting a seed for grassroots participation can't be overestimated. "It's attracted a huge amount of new people to the sport, just by simply witnessing either a hockey game or training or even going for a general skate on the adjacent rink," the Wantirna resident says. "The league has provided teams for people to follow and the Ice House is a world-class facility to have a skate at."
Like many players, McDowell, the 2012 rookie of the year nominee, was drawn to the game by his family.
McDowell's father and two uncles played the game, and at the age of six he hit the ice for the first time. It's the way, he says, that many of his teammates became involved in the game, although a Disney film in the early '90s also played a big role in attracting newcomers.
"Family influence is definitely a big one throughout the hockey community, but there is also a whole range of people who started playing ice hockey after the Mighty Ducks films were released. The movies had a massive impact in Australia."
McDowell says that as good as the new Ice House is, more ice rinks need to be built in the suburbs if the game is to grow. "Sadly, at some point, there soon won't be enough ice time for everyone — if only building and running an ice rink were as easy as a football oval."
Like ice hockey, baseball at all levels received a much-needed injection of support after the introduction of a new national league in 2010.
In 1999, the former Australian Baseball League folded after consistently losing millions of dollars over a number of years.
During that 11-year hiatus the sport struggled to move forward.
Chief executive of Baseball Victoria Brett Hidson says the new league has been a godsend.
"We're now in a large growth phase," he says. "The reintroduction of the ABL has lifted the sport's profile to the point where we're recording 10 per cent membership increases annually."
Hidson says areas like Waverley, Dandenong and Knox have long been strong baseball areas.
"The south-eastern suburbs are the most popular for baseball in Melbourne."
The sport is believed to have been brought to Australia during the gold rush of the 1850s.
Baseball in Australia eventually developed into a game which cricketers played in the off-season, something Hidson says is "still quite prevalent".
He says the constant competition with more traditional sports like Australian rules and cricket is tough.
"It's difficult because those sports automatically have more exposure.
"We try to attract young players by giving them a taste of the sport through primary school clinics and come-try days and hope they come back."
He says Baseball Victoria is keeping its dreams and aspirations within reason."It'll be a very long time until we're compared with larger sports like cricket. Our hope is to develop a niche in people's psyche.
"At the moment we're working at capacity in terms of resources. For the sport to grow we need more people to enjoy it, be a part of it and put their money towards it."
For these three sports, the struggle to compete with Australia's biggest and best is a long, hard road.