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Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens 2016

One million Chinese rugby players in 10 years: Alisports and World Rugby join forces to develop the sport in the mainland

The 10-year agreement will see the company pump in millions of dollars for junior programmes and hosting tournaments

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 April, 2016, 11:29am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 April, 2016, 2:52pm

China is hoping to have one million rugby players in 10 years time after Alisports and World Rugby signed a historic agreement on Sunday to develop the game in the mainland.

Zhang Dazhong, CEO of Alisports, signed the agreement with World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset and chief executive Brett Gosper in which the sports arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba will pump in millions of dollars into the development of the sport in China.

"We hope to have one million players in 10 years time," said Zhang. "With one million players it is easier to become a world-class rugby nation."

Alisports will become an official partner of governing body World Rugby, as well as gain broadcast rights for rugby events. They will also work together to develop grassroots and junior programmes for Chinese players, set up a league competition and stage major international tournaments.

We are already planning to stage a major sevens event in China next year like the one in Hong Kong. We also hope to produce a generation of new players for China in 10 years through our grassroots and youth development programmes
Zhang Dazhong

Parent company Alibaba will also promote World Rugby membership and merchandising through their e-commerce platforms such as Taobao and Tmall.

Gosper said the deal was a major breakthrough for World Rugby's attempts to spark growth in China.

"It's hugely significant for us, this partnership," he said. "It will rapidly accelerate development at grassroots level in China and we will help condition China to host events on our calendar and provide a pathway for their players to play in the Olympics, sevens and fifteens."

Zhang, though not putting an exact figure on Alisports' investment, said money would not be a constraint in ensuring proper programmes are put in place.

“Rugby is widely seen as an amateur sport in China but we see a big future with all these comprehensive programmes in place,” said Zhang. “We are already planning to stage a major sevens event in China next year like the one in Hong Kong. We also hope to produce a generation of new players for China in 10 years through our grassroots and youth development programmes.

“Many people would think the physique of Chinese people does not fit the sport, but in sevens, speed and agility are also important elements which we can do very well. Rugby is a sport in which you challenge your opponents with great courage under proper rules and we think it can help improve the mental strength of young Chinese people, provided they receive the right training.”

World Sevens Series sponsor HSBC, in its report released this week on the future of sevens, says China is among the countries using sevens in the Olympics to drive funding in the game. It said Shanghai is targeted as a future venue for the world series.

China's women's sevens team are leading the way for the country with some outstanding performances on the world stage.

Zhang said the 10-year agreement with World Rugby may be extended.

“We think 10 years will be good enough to produce some good players for China and then we’ll decide if we will have another 10 years with the World Rugby,” he said. “But we want to stress Alisports is just taking the initiative in helping rugby in China. We want more people to join us in future to work with the sport.”

Alisports was set up in September with Alibaba Group as majority owner alongside Sina and Yunfeng Capital, an investment firm owned by Alibaba chairman Jack Ma Yun. Alibaba Group is also the owner of South China Morning Post.

Zhang said one of Alibaba's key strengths in terms of promoting rugby is its access to 400 millions customers.

“We need to put in money resources but more importantly, we can use our strong asset of millions of Alibaba web product users,” said Zhang. “We can leverage reams of data we have on these users, encourage them to become rugby fans and participants before seeing them splash out on sports events, merchandise and equipment.

“This is probably why Rugby World is willing to work with us.”