Shanghai Aussie Rules game only the beginning as AFL’s Port Adelaide leave NBA, NFL in their wake

The crowd at Sunday’s match will be around 25 per cent Chinese, a number the South Australian club plans to grow in years to come

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 May, 2017, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 May, 2017, 12:07pm

The first regular-season game played in China by any foreign professional domestic league is only the beginning for the Port Adelaide Football Club and its China strategy.

Having beaten the NBA and the NFL to China, Port is not viewing Sunday’s match as the culmination of its hard work, but rather the starting point of a long involvement in the country.

When the Australian Football League club takes on the Gold Coast Suns at Shanghai’s Jiangwan Stadium, Chinese people are expected to make up around 25 per cent of the crowd.

Many of them will be corporates this time around, but Andrew Hunter, Port’s general manager of China and government relations, says he “can’t see a limit on the growth of the local audience”.

“This game was more popular than anyone had ever possibly imagined,” Hunter said.

“It sold out in a couple of hours. We had plans to actually market it to local universities and we have a school programme in China that goes to 14 schools.

“We wanted to get as many of those students that are actually playing the game to be involved in the match in China, but it sold out so quickly.”

Most of the crowd for Sunday’s match will be made up of those travelling from Australia and Australian expats from throughout Asia.

However, Hunter knows that for the fixture to survive long-term it needs to attract more locals as the novelty wears off for Australian fans.

“I can’t see a limit on the growth of the local audience because we haven’t really fully explored it yet,” he said.

“The local business community has been supportive of this particular game but beyond that, it is the schools and universities which have rich potential.

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“I think we need to do a little bit more in terms of attracting those that are participating in the sport and I think there is significant growth potential in young people playing footy in China.”

Schools and universities in Xian, Chengdu and Shandong have expressed their interest in getting involved in Port’s programme that is currently in schools across three provinces.

The club is keen to push the sport as another way to stay active as the Chinese attitude towards exercise shifts, while also unlocking the cultural element of the code.

“The schools that we are targeting are largely international schools and if students have an ambition to study at an Australian university or travel to Australia, it is knowing that our sport is our culture,” Hunter says.

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“In that sense it is a cultural exchange and a cultural understanding that comes from playing Australian football.

“We think it’s a great sport but we’re not selling it as the greatest sport, all we’re saying is that playing sport in itself is a great way to stay healthy.”

Hunter is confident the game will become an annual event and the business aspect has been a driving force behind the initiative.

The club is reaping the rewards of its China strategy from a sponsorship perspective – AU$6 million thus far – with Shanghai Cred founder Gui Guojie one of the first to offer his support.

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“The idea of bringing Australian and Chinese businesses closer together around the game was very strong and that opportunity has been realised,” Hunter said.

“There is going to be leaders from the Australian business community there and also the government interaction is really important.”