Australia's Influence on Sports
Australians have had a great impact on sports. See tennis great Rod Laver, golf legend Greg Norman and five-time gold medalist swimmer Ian Thorpe.
Thorpe’s 2000 Olympics fueled Michael Phelps to Olympic greatness. Laver was a pioneering shotmaker who was No. 1 from 1964 to 1970. And Norman was a force on the U.S. golf tour.
Today, new Aussie stars are making moves and setting trends that influence college and pro sports in the United States and beyond.
Here are 12 ways Australians are changing the sports world and why you should care.
#12: Rise of the Small-Ball Center in Basketball
The world knows Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors created an NBA dynasty with smaller players who shoot threes like the rest of us eat popcorn at the movies. European hoops fans knew first and the U.S. now recognizes the superstar status of Milwaukee Bucks All-Star captain Giannis Antetokounmpo, nicknamed the "Greek Freak" for his ballhandling skills as a 6-foot-10 baller with a 7-foot-3 wingspan.
Antetokounmpo has company in the freak category. While the Philadelphia 76ers have featured Joel Embid on social media and the court, Australia’s Ben Simmons is on the verge of busting out as another 6-foot-10 ballhandler with a 7-foot wingspan.
Antetokounmpo started out as a point guard, the brainchild of then-Milwaukee and Hall of Famer point guard Jason Kidd. New Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has installed Antetokounmpo at small-ball center, where he is the "roll" on the pick-and-roll move, averaging 26.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists during the 2018-19 season.
In Philly, Simmons is in his second season as a point guard, flashing a 16-9-8 line of points, rebounds and assists. Those numbers are up from his rookie year in part because Simmons is playing some small-ball center when Embid takes a breather.
Since All-Star wing guard Jimmy Butler was traded to the Sixers, Simmons’ line is approaching triple-double range. The reason? When Butler handles the ball, Simmons can slide from point guard to down low near the basket for easy points when defended by smaller point guards.
The Greek Freak is the first small-ball center, but the Australian Simmons will be the one to turn this trend to a standard tactic among NBA coaches and front offices looking to draft big men with XXL-long arms who can dribble, pass, shoot and rebound.
#11: Are You Tough Enough for Aussie Rules Football?
Call this the reverse effect — an American influencing Australian sports. Mason Cox wasn’t a surefire NBA candidate after playing college basketball at Oklahoma State, so the Texas native accepted a job with Exxon Mobil.
But in 2014, he went to an Australian Rules Football combine in Los Angeles and impressed a whole bunch of teams, including the Collingwood Magpies franchise, which signed Cox.
The rest is Australian Rules Football history. Mason Cox played his team, the Collingwood Magpies, into the 2018 Grand Final with an unprecedented performance that could be compared to an Aussie pitcher throwing a no-hitter to get his Major League Baseball team into the World Series. Or an NFL quarterback setting a playoff record for touchdown passes to lead his team to a Super Bowl berth.
Cox’s nickname is "American Pie," and Collingwood fans chant "USA! USA!" when he scores. For his part, Cox says he is "still reacting" during play and learning the game.
Here’s where it gets interesting. NBA draft scouts, people like Jonathan Givony of ESPN, have long argued that college basketball players who look like linebackers and pass like point guards or agile centers/forwards are ideal prospects for the Aussie Rules game.
Expect Cox to motivate more than a few ex-pats with NCAA hoops credentials. The NBA might be the first league to lose some prospects.
#10: Rugby Hits the NFL
No one’s going to argue that rugby demands resilience and toughness. The same goes for playing in the National Football League.
A handful of Australian rugby players have earned tryouts and even one guaranteed three-year, six-figure contract (Jared Haynes as a "project" running back), but the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles validated the movement by picking Jordan Mailata in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL draft to play offensive tackle.
The Aussie with Samoan roots drew raves in summer camp for his athleticism as an offensive lineman, and big men who are lean, agile and still in the vicinity of 300 pounds are becoming vital to NFL talent evaluators.
Mailata was assigned to the injured reserve list in his rookie year, but the Eagles kept the Mailata on their 53-man active roster most of the season because they didn’t want to lose him on waivers to another NFL franchise. The team envisions Mailata as the heir apparent at left tackle (the blocker who protects the quarterback’s "blind side") to All-Pro Jason Peters, who is 37.
While other Aussies are breaking into American football as punters, expect more Australian rugby players to be drafted in future NFL springs, especially if Mailata fills his sunny forecast as a quarterback protector.You can never have enough offensive tackles who can run like running backs — and maybe even catch a touchdown pass or two on tackle-eligible plays.
#9: Play Ball
Back in the summer of 1986, when Aussie actor Paul Hogan turned "Crocodile Dundee" into a big hit, Craig Shipley made his debut in The Show (aka Major League Baseball) with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The New South Wales native was the first Australian to break into the modern major league, but far from the last. Nearly 30 Aussies have followed Shipley’s path with hundreds more signed as minor league prospects.
Aussie Joe Quinn played American pro baseball during the 19th century, notching 17 seasons with teams such as the Cleveland Spiders, St. Louis Maroons and Boston Beaneaters. Shipley’s career covered 11 MLB seasons with five teams as a utility infielder. Five more Australians joined their countryman on MLB rosters during that span.
Two Aussies have made the All-Star Game, including the 2012 selection of Grant Balfour, who served as the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays closer over several seasons. Balfour also became the first Australian to sign an eight-figure free-agent contract.
Shipley's success led to the birth of the Australian Baseball League in 1987, which existed until 1999 and then was reborn in 2009. The league is live during the MLB offseason and affords dozens of MLB minor leaguers (native Aussies, Americans and more) opportunities to perfect their swings and pitches.
#8: Pioneering Exercise Science and Sports Nutrition
The popularity of sports in Australia might not match America in sheer volume of leagues, fans and television dollars, but it is a central spoke of pop culture Down Under. That’s why former prime minister Malcolm Fraser established the Australian Institute of Sport in 1981. Fraser and his fellow citizens were upset about the lack of Australian Olympic medals during recent Summer Games.
The mission of the Institute was to bring together the country’s top sports scientists and sports nutritionists to provide comprehensive year-round training for aspiring Olympians in swimming, gymnastics, and track and field. It worked wonders at the 1984 Summer Olympics, producing seven swimming medals, a best-ever gymnastics performance and three track-and-field finishes in the top six of events for the first time.
The institute showcased the burgeoning exercise science and sports nutrition movements in Australia. Researchers were publishing in academic journals worldwide and pioneering all sorts of new approaches to training, eating and even sleeping. Historians of sports nutrition credit several Aussies as forerunners (along with a handful of Scandinavian scientists) of the widespread eating/hydrating regimens now applied across the NFL, NBA, NHL, Premier League, La Liga and more.
Scores of countries took notice of the Institute of Australian Sport’s official status as a government agency, following suit for future Olympics. It is now standard practice for nations.
#7: Role Models and Competitive Markers
Swimming legend Ian Thorpe burst onto the Olympic scene in 2000 as a 17-year-old (with size 17 feet) in his hometown of Sydney. He won three golds and two silvers in the pool.
Fifteen-year-old Michael Phelps, competing in his first Olympics, was watching — and listening — nearby. Phelps later wrote in his 2008 book, "No Limits: The Will to Succeed," that he noted Thorpe’s answers to questions about hype and attention on the world stage: “You can look at it as a negative, as pressure. Or you can look at it as a positive, as support." Phelps began using similar lines in his own interviews.
Phelps quietly determined that Thorpe was both his role model and competitive marker. Phelps’ longtime coach Bob Bowman leveraged the obsession by hanging a framed photo of Thorpe over his piano, which Phelps couldn’t miss when visiting Bowman’s home. The photo showed Thorpe touching the pool wall when he set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle event at the 2000 Sydney Games. Bowman was "unabashed" about using Thorpe as a motivator for his protégé.
As the 2004 Summer Olympics approached, Phelps and Bowman made it known the 19-year-old American planned to shoot for winning eight gold medals. Thorpe was lukewarm when asked about the Phelps plan: "I don’t think he will do it, but I’d love to see it."
Phelps taped the quote inside his locker door, looking at it every time he started and finished a training session. He wrote, "Every day when I’d close that locker door, that fluttering piece of paper served as a reminder of the many doubters."
It worked. Phelps won the eight golds at the 2008 Games in Beijing, after winning six golds at Athens, and finished his career as the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time with 23 golds and 28 medals overall. Thorpe finished his Olympic career with five golds and eight medals overall, and there is no debate he spurred the greatest swimming performance of all time.
#6: Pro Bowl Punting
Michael Dickson, an Australian punter for the Seattle Seahawks, had a rookie season to remember in the NFL. Dickson was named to the 2019 Pro Bowl, the first rookie punter to do so in 33 years (Dale Hatcher was the last in 1985). Dickson led all punters with a 48.2 yards-per-punt average for the 2018 regular season and was closer to 53 yards per punt during the last two months of the campaign.
Dickson is the star pupil of Nathan Chapman, who runs a famous punting academy in Australia. Expect more Aussie punters to be drafted (Seattle moved up to pick Dickson in the fifth round), and Dickson and other punters with Aussie Rules Football pedigrees could be signing eight-figure NFL contracts soon.
Other highlights of Dickson’s meteoric rise: Three years ago, he didn’t know what the Pro Bowl was. Two years ago, he was named the most valuable player of a bowl game, leading his University of Texas team to a win over Missouri by pinning eight of 11 punts inside the 20-yard-line. A year ago, Dickson won the Ray Guy award for college punters, even though he didn’t know Ray Guy from Ray Charles. Two months ago, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll instructed Dickson to run out of the back of the Seattle end zone for a safety (two points for the opponent) so the team wouldn’t risk its two-touchdown lead. Dickson took the long snap and scampered around right end to gain nine yards and a first down that allowed Seattle to run out the clock for a victory. Carroll was cussing, then laughing.
Teammates are not laughing at Dickson’s bravado (his nickname is, ahem, "Big Balls") nor the Aussie’s work ethic. Like Japanese pitchers who throw more pitches in training and between starts than American counterparts, Dickson punts and punts and punts all week long. His special teams coach devised a training regimen to discourage Dickson from punting too much. Whatever the punt count or workout program, other NFL coaches and aspiring punters are sure to follow, especially those Americans looking to not lose their jobs to Aussies.
#5: Follow 'The Shark'
Greg Norman’s impact on golf and especially the PGA Tour goes way beyond his battles with Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo. Not only did he inspire top Aussie players in today’s world rankings (hello, Jason Day and Adam Scott), but his success as a businessman, capitalizing on his name, nickname ("The Great White Shark"), likeness and all-around Aussie-ism, ran parallel with Michael Jordan creating his own brand at Nike.
Norman, however, did all this without Nike as a corporate cornerstone. Norman started his own Greg Norman Company, recently celebrating its 30th anniversary (no doubt with a bottle or two of the finest from his brand-name winery and one of his signature steaks). Norman’s place in sports brand history is the stuff of Mt. Rushmore. Norman’s business holdings include Greg Norman Golf Course Design, Greg Norman Real Estate, Greg Norman Media, Greg Norman Investments, Greg Norman’s Australian Grille and Shark Wake Park.
Norman’s play wasn't too shabby either. While golf fans can’t forget the heartache of the likable Norman losing a six-stroke lead to Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters, remember that Norman tallied 331 weeks on top of the world golf rankings. Only some guy named Tiger has held the lofty spot longer. Norman also won 91 tournaments from 1980 through 1999.
None other than golf great Arnold Palmer was impressed with Norman. Palmer invited the young Shark to tour his Bay Hill golf course and residential development in Florida when Norman decided to move to the U.S. full-time to compete on the PGA Tour. Norman bought a home alongside the 12th hole, creating a full-360-degree influence of Australian influencing American sports and American influencing Australian sports.
#4: The Laver Effect
Australia is a cornerstone of the professional tennis world, whichever way you slice your backhand. Top male stars include John Newcombe and Ken Rosewall (who went on to become an icon broadcaster, too). Female Evonne Goolagong and Margaret Court are household names as well, with Court serving as a worthy and championship-caliber foil to tennis legend Billie Jean King on real-life courts and in the hit 2017 movie "Battle of the Sexes."
Let’s not forget the Australian Open stands as one of the four pro tennis event comprising a Grand Slam (others are the French and U.S. Ppens, plus Wimbledon). When tennis stars take center court in Melbourne, they step into the Rod Laver Arena. Game, set, match on who is most iconic and influential.
Laver won 200 singles titles (a nice round number), including 11 Grand Slam events. He is the only man to win the four singles events in one calendar year, doing it twice, in 1962 and 1969. Tennis historians will note that Laver, because he went pro after the 1962 Slam, was ineligible to play in the then-amateur Grand Slams from 1963 through 1968. The thinking is Laver likely would have busted past 20 total Grand Slams otherwise. When the events opened to professionals in 1969, he, of course, rattled off all four titles.
Laver’s smaller stature (5-foot-8) and aggressive groundstroke play (topspin on all, including lobs and underspin on his backhand) defied the status quo of male players in the early 1960s. Plus, the lefty was known for shotmaking risks (highly entertaining to fans) and changing attack tactics abruptly and successfully during five-set marathon matches on the biggest stages of tennis. Laver inspired the next generation of American left-handed greats, including a couple of guys named McEnroe and Connors. We repeat: Game, set, match.
#3: All-Planet Hoop Dreams
At 14, Lauren Jackson was selected to the Australian national women’s under-20 basketball team. As a 16-year-old, Jackson was called to the women’s national/Olympics team and awarded a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport, or AIS, in 1997. The next year, she led the AIS team to the Women’s National Basketball League title in Australia. In 2000, she was part of the Australian women’s silver-medal effort in Sydney. She repeated the silver feat in 2004 and 2008, the latter as captain.
In 2001, Jackson was drafted by the Seattle Storm of the USA’s Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), and her global influence went geographic and geometric. The Storm management and coaching staff envisioned Jackson as a franchise player, and they were right. Along with American star Sue Bird, Jackson led the Storm to two WNBA titles in 2004 and 2011, winning the Finals MVP award in 2011.
She ranks among the all-time WNBA greats for games played, minutes played, points, 3-point shooting and fewest turnovers. But her truest and deepest influence was on tens of thousands of the tallest American (and Canadian and European and Asian) girls who realized that being 6-foot-plus could lead to greatness rather than awkwardness. She motivated taller girls to become better outside shooters (remember, she is among all-time leaders in 3-pointers) who are unafraid to crash the boards for rebounds. One more no small thing: Jackson and Bird and the Storm are credited with some of the highest ratings for women’s sports.
To round out Jackson’s planetary influence on future women’s hoops players, she "moonlighted" during WNBA offseasons by playing for top club teams in Russia, Spain, Korea and China. She not only won titles, set records and won MVP awards in these countries. She earned six-figure contracts and endorsements to further even the playing field for women athletes.
#2: The Epicenter for Computerized Player Tracking
As professional sports in the United States continue to embrace data as a decision point for which players to sign and coaches to hire/fire, a Melbourne-based company, Catapult, keeps chalking up the wins no matter the sport or level.
Catapult supplies player-tracking devices to nearly 2,000 teams in more than 35 sports and 60 countries. The majority of these devices can be spotted if you are viewing photos of training sessions for, say, Premier League soccer players or NCAA basketball players. Players are wearing what appear to be a modified version of sports bras or cut-off T-shirts that track everything from heart rate to lung capacity recovery.
Catapult clients include the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, the Premier League’s Liverpool, Leicester City and Chelsea sides, other Europe top soccer clubs AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, plus the National Hockey League’s iconic Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins.
University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, whose team has won five NCAA national championships, says the Catapult player tracking devices provide "a scientific picture" of his team’s physiological status during practices. He insists the data has motivated him to overhaul how Alabama coaches structure practice to keep players "more physically fresh."
College football coach Jimbo Fisher won a national championship with Florida State in 2013. He credits Catapult devices with helping reduce his championship team’s soft-tissue injuries by 88 percent during the title run. "I live by that thing," says Fisher.
Catapult has worldwide aspirations beyond American college football and the other football played in Europe. But you might say Fisher already has "catapulted" his career by exiting a top job at Florida State in 2017 to coach at Texas A&M on a $75 million, 10-year contract.
#1: Major 'Footprint' in the NFL and NCAA
Nathan Chapman played Aussie Rules football, or "footy" in the 1990s. But injuries (hamstrings, groin, right knee ligaments, ankles, right hand, right shoulder) avalanched his footy career. He schemed to become a punter (an important skill in Aussie football), earning a tryout with the Green Bay Packers and later making offseason NFL rosters with the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals, but he never punted in the regular season.
Yet Chapman learned from his mistakes. Most of all, he realized his punting career should have started with college football, where there is a greater overall need for kickers, especially those arriving from playing a sport Down Under in which 80-yard kicks are not uncommon.
Chapman and a business partner started Prokick Australia in 2008, setting up a modest operation in Melbourne. But even then applicants were only accepted if they could punt an American football at least 45 yards with a 4.5-second hang time (sort of like saying you only get into college with perfect SAT scores).
By 2012, Chapman had perfected how Aussie Rules players could become NCAA college and NFL pro punters. While the Aussie game allows a player/kicker a long running start, the American game has long set up the punter to take one step and punt. Chapman created a hybrid style in which the punter takes a few steps on a diagonal to get power in the kick and avoid the onrushing defenders looking to block the punt.
The tweaking worked big time for hang time by 2013 — as Chapman’s pupils were getting scholarships to schools such as Ohio State (where Prokick alum Cameron Johnston won a national championship and is currently one of four Aussie punters on NFL rosters). Other college programs tapping into Prokick that year included LSU, Utah, Ole Miss and Oregon State.
One sign Aussie punters are all the rage? Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wanted to set up a satellite tryout camp at Prokick, which the NCAA rebuffed. More compelling evidence? More than 70 Prokick "graduates" punted for American college football programs in 2018.
Now that’s the way for Aussies to kick it up a notch with American and global sports.