Beating NFL and NBA to the punch: Port Adelaide bring real AFL deal to Shanghai

May’s match is the first regular-season game played in the country by any foreign professional league, attracting government and corporate support

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 February, 2017, 11:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 6:42pm

The first regular-season game played in China by any foreign professional league will be used as a “linchpin to drive interest in Australian football”, says Port Adelaide’s Matt Richardson.

The Australian Football League (AFL) club will play an official match against the Gold Coast in Shanghai in May, with a game that is only played professionally in Australia beating the likes of the NFL and the NBA to the punch.

“The NFL are looking to play a game in China in 2018 and the AFL are playing a game there in 2017, it’s incredible,” said Richardson, the club’s general manager of marketing and consumer business.

It’s all happened remarkably quickly for Port Adelaide and the AFL, with a venture that Port started in a bid to grow their business snowballing when they saw the potential for growing the game of Australian football as a whole.

It was less than three years ago that the idea began to take shape, with the club holding a business lunch in Hong Kong in May 2014.

“In Hong Kong, we’re relevant because there is such a large Australian population here compared to China, so we thought we could use Hong Kong as a base to then leapfrog across into China,” said Richardson.

“Without Hong Kong this wouldn’t have happened. The Hong Kong Football Club has become Port Adelaide’s home away from home.”

Port have built their presence in Hong Kong through functions and coaching clinics and

are into their third season as the major sponsor of the South China AFL (SCAFL) – a six-team league containing four teams from Hong Kong and two from Guangzhou.

Over 100 Chinese have played in the SCAFL since its launch in 2011 and there are about 50 participating at the moment, with Richardson saying the sense of community the game is built on has struck a chord.

Port are now using the knowledge acquired by the Chinese in Guangzhou as a vehicle to drive participation growth in Shanghai and beyond.

“That’s where Hong Kong and the South China AFL is really significant because that model is what we are trying to replicate in Shanghai,” Richardson said.

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The club held a training camp in Shanghai in December, giving 2,000 Chinese children the chance to learn the game, and also played exhibition games in schools, with 12 Shanghai schools now running AFL programmes.

May’s game, to be held at Jiangwan Stadium, will become an annual fixture in a bid to entice more players and fans.

There is also the lure of playing for Team China, which Port also sponsors, and a trip to Australia once every three years for the AFL International Cup.

On top of that, Port offers school scholarships through their partnership with Immanuel College in Adelaide and Guangzhou local Chen Shaoliang, the best of the Chinese players, is in Adelaide training with the side.

“In terms of growing and developing the game up here, you can point to those sort of opportunities and say ‘well, if you get involved, there is an opportunity to go to Australia and it’s good for your education’,” Richardson said.

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Richardson says both the Australian and Chinese governments have connected with the idea, with the event to feature expos promoting Australian wine, food, travel and education.

“There will be a lot of people travelling, we’ve had 3,000-3,500 ticket registrations in Australia alone,” he said.

“The bigger picture, there is two sides to it – the whole Australian community in Asia coming to Shanghai for that weekend, but then as we go we want to build a Chinese audience and local support for the game.

“That’s where all the other elements around all those things that are iconically Australian come in. It’s not only about come and try a game of AFL, it’s also about come and try Australia.

“That then broadens the appeal for partners that can leverage that to benefit whatever they are doing, whether it be business or education or tourism.”

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Corporate support from the likes of Cathay Pacific and Shanghai Cred Real Estate has helped to push the concept along, with Shanghai Cred founder Gui Guojie taking a liking to Australian football when he attended a match in 2015.

“He came to Adelaide Oval and fell in love with the game,” Richardson said. “He has this incredible vision to bring Australia’s game to Shanghai. That sort of support has really accelerated it.”