US$100 million on hold: World Rugby suspends China programme over governance changes
CEO Brett Gosper says progress has been slow but he is confident the development project will be up and running again in May
Alisports’ US$100 million investment to develop rugby in China has been temporarily halted as the world governing body assesses the fall-out of sweeping changes in mainland sports governance.
World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper said on Saturday that gradual changes implemented by sports minister Gou Zhongwen has trickled down to various sporting bodies in the country and the China Rugby Union is one of those affected.
He said the programme, launched in April 2016, has been suspended for about two months – slowing down what was already a programme moving at snail’s pace.
“We signed an agreement with Alisports to work on developing rugby at grassroots level but also working on staging competitions in sevens and 15s, for men and women. That was the intention,” said Gosper on the sidelines of the Hong Kong Sevens.
“I’d have to say it’s been slow progress, the partnership. It’s slower than we would have liked. Things aren’t easy and rapid in China as we would have liked in the areas we are dealing with.
“It’s been slowed down recently by a change in the government’s administrative approach in China and what we have done is put [this programme] on hold for a month or two until we get clarity on who is leading rugby in China.
“We have that clarity and we have a meeting with China in May to work out the best way to continue to go forward with Alisports at that point.”
Alisports, the sports division of tech giant Alibaba, said it would use the US$100 million – to be disbursed over 10 years – to set up professional leagues for men and women and a national sevens programme.
In addition, plans were afoot to introduce the sport into 10,000 universities and schools in an effort to attract one million new players over 10 years. They would also recruit and train 30,000 coaches and 15,000 match officials by 2020 while the company’s digital arm wold launch a nationwide marketing programme and broadcast rugby on its TV and digital channels.
Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.
China’s women’s team stunned the crowd at the Hong Kong Sevens on Friday when they won the women’s World Series qualifier by beating South Africa in the final. However, he said the women’s success was a result of progress made before Alisport’s involvement.
Gosper said he hoped to have the programme up and running again after meeting with China’s rugby leaders in May, adding that some progress has already been made.
“Yes, they have done some good work for us and yes, they have been using that platform to expose the sport to a greater population in China but we need to meet with them to find out how well they can work with the new governance of sport in China.”
Gosper admitted World Rugby were still unsure if the new rugby leaders in China would even be willing to continue the programme.
Rugby sevens’ inclusion as an Olympic sport from 2016 onwards prompted Alisports to focus on developing the sport in the mainland, which is one of the fastest-growing markets for sevens, 15s and women’s rugby.
World Rugby is also keen to promote the sport in a country that offers massive potential for commercial partnerships should rugby ever take off in popularity.