Australian Football’s China Game Is All Business
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2017-05-13 11:29:31

SHANGHAI — On Sunday, more than 10,000 spectators will fill Shanghai’s Jiangwan Stadium to witness the clash between two Australian Football League (AFL) teams, the Gold Coast Suns and the Port Adelaide Power.

Though the league has held off-season international exhibition matches before — including one in Shanghai in 2010 — Sunday’s round will be the first time players score premiership points outside of Australia and New Zealand. Port Adelaide CEO Keith Thomas says it will be a “historic match.”

With a playing area twice the size of a typical soccer field and dramatic tackles minus the protective gear worn on the gridiron, Australian rules football is a fast-paced, high-scoring contact sport little-known outside of the country. But though the league has pushed to promote the sport in China with amateur competitions and training in schools, what’s really advancing the game is the thirst for closer commercial contact between both countries.

Close to 3,000 seats at the match were sold as hospitality tickets to Chinese and Australian companies, according to the Australian Financial Review.

Thomas, Port Adelaide’s CEO, said the game opens doors for Chinese investors looking to compete in the Australian market. The club has spent $4 million Australian dollars ($3 million) on staging the Shanghai round, but its China strategy has already attracted 20 sponsors and millions in investments.

“Sport is at the heart of Australian culture,” Thomas told Sixth Tone. “We believe our sport can help to bring people together in friendship and in business, and provide many investment opportunities for Chinese investors wishing to do business in Australia.”

Although Thomas admitted the venture was risky, he is confident that the game will break even in the first year and “prove to be a very sound investment for the future.”

One key sponsor is AusGold Mining Group, whose chief executive, Sally Zou, was also named in South Australian media as the largest donor to the state’s right-leaning Liberal Party for the last financial year. According to The Australian newspaper, Zou is a Chinese national, though her family is now based in Australia.

Another of Port Adelaide’s investors, Guo Guojie, chairman of property developer Shanghai CRED, signed a multimillion-dollar three-year partnership with the club last year to support its endeavors in China.

On Saturday, the club announced another AU$3 million deal with Chinese firm MJK International Holdings Group, a company whose businesses reportedly range from wine to real estate.

China is no stranger to sports diplomacy. The national sport, table tennis, paved the way for Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China — the first visit by an American president after the founding of the People’s Republic of China — and eventually for the normalization of Sino-U.S. relations.

Four decades later, China is the world’s second-largest economy, and its growing appetite for overseas investment has presented alluring opportunities for the country’s trading partners. The two-way trade relationship between China and Australia totaled $104.07 billion in 2016, according to the Chinese commerce ministry.

The Port Adelaide Power have played the long game to court Chinese interest, signing the league’s first-ever Chinese national recruit and printing players’ names in Chinese characters on their jerseys. In March, Chinese premier Li Keqiang paid a high-profile visit to the team, spectating the Power’s season-opener with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The Shanghai showcase round has received support from both the professional league and the Australian government, with the country’s official tourism body, Tourism Australia, sponsoring and promoting the event.

Port Adelaide club president David Koch (no relation to the family behind American company Koch Industries) conceded that the showcase is more about selling “Brand Australia” than the sport itself. “To be completely honest, no one [in China] gives a toss about Port Adelaide or AFL at the moment,” he told Australian broadcaster SBS. “But they love Australia — Australia is all about healthy living; Australia is all about great food, a healthy lifestyle.”

However, the lead-up to the match has had its fair share of hiccups. First, there was the dispute over which jersey the Gold Coast Suns players would wear during the game. Port Adelaide, worried that the Suns’ red-and-gold home jersey — which matches the colors of the Chinese national flag — could bias Chinese audiences in their favor, brought the issue to the AFL, but the supervising body sided with Gold Coast.

Trainers and coaches from both teams also expressed their concerns about how air quality, food safety, and lengthy travel could impact players’ health and performance. Darren Burgess, trainer for the Power, said he banned players from eating outside their hotel in China because local food could be “pretty dangerous,” while Gold Coast coach Rooney Eade did little to hide his displeasure about the trip.

“I have to [toe] the political line, don’t I?” Eade said when asked by Australian radio station Triple M if he was looking forward to the Shanghai match.

Yet despite some reservations, tickets to the game sold out in under three hours. The match will be broadcast live on China Central Television, Shanghai Television and Guangzhou Television.

Contributions: Qian Jinghua; editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: Chinese players participate in AFL drills ahead of the AFL Shanghai Showdown at Shanghai Sports University, Oct. 15, 2010. Ryan Pierse/Getty Images/VCG)