The long, slow, drawn out release of the AFL Fixture for 2018 has begun and, as a result, we all are aware that Shanghai will again host Port Adelaide and Gold Coast in a match for premiership points. Is the AFL wasting valuable money and resources on an impossible dream or can Australian Football actually gain a foothold in China?
There were countless newsprint, radio waves and social media posts devoted to the numerous reasons why the AFL was wasting it’s time in taking the game to China. Paul Malone in the Sydney Morning Herald was eager to point out ‘Aussie Rules isn’t even the dominant men’s team sport in all parts of Australia.’ Essendon great Tim Watson couldn’t understand the move and expressed so on SEN, “I don’t understand the need for it, what are we trying to build here?” Corey Martin, in Tasmania’s The Examiner was the most dismissive however, writing ‘the AFL will never gain enough traction to be a big-time player in world sport other than The Great Southern Land. So why bother?’, before concluding that ‘AFL in China will be about as successful as the been-and-gone substitution rule and Meat Loaf.’
Malone and Martin’s rantings seemed to best capture the spirit of many, the AFL won’t ever be the dominant sport in all sections of Australia, why waste money to be an insignificant player somewhere else? It was a surprisingly small minded response to a grand mission that seemingly had no real downside. When compared to the pioneering spirit of other codes around the world it is positively bewildering.
“All of us always say we have the greatest game in the world, so why don’t we showcase it? Why are we scared to take it outside of Australia?
David Koch – The Age 12.05.17
While Koch hasn’t always been rational when talking about his club’s foray into China, his tantrum about Gold Coast wearing Red & Yellow was petulant to the extreme, these comments shared with Jon Pierik are quite astute. As Australians we seem embarrassed by the desire of our own game attempting to extend it’s borders but seem quite willing and open to the overtures of other sports spreading it’s wings. For example you need only look at the growth of American Football in Australia. 30 years ago the idea of a College Football game being played in front of a full house in Sydney would have been as laughable as the AFL’s current foray into China. Yet NFL and College Football has been presented to the Australian market, sometimes haphazardly, but always unapologetically throughout that time. As a result interest has grown to such a point that two College Football games have been played at Allianz Stadium, and the Super Bowl draws a viewing audience on a Monday morning in Australia of 210,000. This figure represents roughly 10% of all viewers to watch the game outside of North America.
It is indisputable that current interest in China for Australian Football is somewhere closer to none than slim, but what is to be gained if we simply sit back and accept that is the high water mark of support in the planet’s most populous nation? Or does it make more sense to attempt something difficult in the knowledge that capturing the imagination of just 0.06% of the Chinese population would deliver more supporters than there are people in Tasmania?
The support of both Australian and Chinese governments in the venture point to another factor that may well give the venture a better than expected chance of success. It is a strong sign that both governments are in agreement in the value sports diplomacy can foster. Trade between the two counties already amounts to almost $140bil despite an otherwise frosty relationship. Port Adelaide, understanding of their position in the pecking order of sponsorship opportunities within the Australian sporting landscape, have spent much of the last few years positioning themselves as a conduit for Chinese companies looking for an opportunity to strengthen their position in Australia.
After one foray behind the red curtain, early signs are positive that this approach will deliver Port and the AFL time to ‘preach the word’ as it were. The Power have announced that the move helped them attract 20 new sponsors. The club happy to suggest that a number of those signing on were looking to sign on as long term, major partners of the club, a commitment that comes with a price tag in excess of $1mil a year.
It has meant that the $4mil foray has been a free hit for Port Adelaide with the raft of new sponsors covering the cost of the investment. It also saw approximately 5000 Port Adelaide fans visit China for the match which must point to the venture being an overwhelming success, with or without making any kind of impact on the Chinese sporting landscape.
With Port Adelaide’s push including the creation of partnerships with Chinese schools and universities, they appear determined to ensure this is no fly by night enterprise. For as long as the game presents these financial benefits relative to the investment, Port and the AFL will have time to grab the foothold it so desires. In the end it will be time that will decide whether the game remains an exhibition for ex-pat Australians or carve out a niche market.