Was the AFL’s China experiment a success?

Much has been made of the recent Australian Rules game between the Gold Coast Suns and Port Adelaide in Shanghai – no small amount has been hype from the AFL, and some mockery from other codes, as well as some local confusion as to what the game actually is – so I thought we’d take a look at the venture.

Port Adelaide claims that match costs – including temporary stands and ground maintenance – were about $4 million and that these costs were met by twenty companies, including 12 Chinese companies who had never been involved in Australian football before . Port Adelaide has also secured another $3 million sponsorship with Chinese conglomerate MJK International Holdings – although much of this is to be allocated to its development programs in China.

Andrew Hunter, spearhead of Port Adelaide’s China strategy was quoted as saying that the club will bring in almost $10 million as a result. So at the very least, the game has broken even on cost – although we wont get the full picture until Port’s next AGM and Annual Report.

Attendance was reported as 10,118 – a figure many remain skeptical about due to apparent large gaps in the crowd. Gillon Mclachlan was not altogether convincing in his explanation of the reason for the gaps when he said that the empty sections in the grandstand were due to fans in those sections having access to nearby corporate marquees which were located at either end of the ground. Tickets sold out in about three hours.

More than 5,000 Australian fans flew in for the game and around 2000-3,000 locals were believed to have purchased tickets, while the Financial Review reported that 3,000 tickets were taken by Australian and Chinese companies for corporate hospitality. The Review also reported 1,800 police were in attendance.

Considerable Government support was lent to the endeavor, including sponsorship by Tourism Australia. The event was attended by the South Australian Premier, Victorian and SA trade ministers, the Federal Assistant Trade Minister and the Australian Ambassador to China. A number of Australian and Chinese business representatives were also in attendance.

Chinese television ratings have not yet been made available (and to be honest the Australian ones werent fantastic), but the AFL was quite pleased to announce that three major Chinese networks CCTV, Shanghai TV and Guangzhou TV would all take the game live. CCTV is free to air and available to everyone in China with a television set, giving a potential reach of around 1.3 billion, while Shanghai TV and Guangzhou TV are available in their local regions only. Previous broadcasts in China have been reported in the media as rating between 2 and 3.5 million.

The Australian noted that local Chinese media reporting was generally favourable with the Chinese-language Wenhui Daily, writing the game was “a milestone event, a historic breakthrough. It drew wide interest from Australian and Chinese TV audiences, and might have reached the highest TV audience in the AFL’s history, with Channel 7, Fox Sports, China Central TV, Shanghai TV and Guangzhou TV all covering it.” Crowd reviews were a mixed bag of positive and negative.

Success, breakeven or failure?

  • Financial – at this time, all reports indicate this was a financial success or at least a breakeven. If the club did get $10 million, thats equivelant to almost a quarter of its total financial income in previous years, and I’m not sure how anyone can knock that back. I rate this a success.
  • Attendance – the AFL calls it a success, however it was a little light on local flavour. However, for the first match for AFL premiership points in China, 2-3,000 public plus however many corporates is a reasonable start for a totally foreign sport. I rate this a breakeven.
  • Television – no figures as yet supplied. This may not be a good sign, as they were expected earlier in the week. Possible failure.
  • Football – poor quality, probably not helped by the Suns preparations and weird flight arrangements. Certainly something for other teams to consider when playing next year. Unfortunately, this part has to be rated a failure.

In short, simply having this game be financially profitable is a success. It met all of Port Adelaide’s aims, including increasing its sponsorship portfolio and Chinese exposure. Certainly Port and the AFL believes it to be a success and are planning on returning there next year.

Critical to the success has been the planning. This wasnt a fly by night operation – not least proven by the length of time it took to actually develop the turf at the stadium – the match was the culmination of years of work by Port Adelaide in particular who set their sights on a Chinese future as early as 2014, developing a business network in Hong Kong, sponsoring the chinese national Australian Football side,and then gaining Chinese corporate and Australian Government assistance and support.

Short term plans

Port Adelaide has indicated that it is fielding interest from a number of clubs and states in response to this match – there is no guarantee for the Suns – and expects to make as much as $2 million from the next clash. The Power paid Gold Coast $500,000 to play a home game in China this year, but the amount on offer for next season is said to be as high as $1 million.

The AFL is looking at playing the next game under lights, and in a better timeslot. The AFL has also said it will work towards increasing the grounds capacity after such a fast sell out. Port Adelaide Chairman David Koch has indicated that the club may look at the more modern Shanghai Stadium, although that comes with significant logistical hurdles including the presence of a running track. in the mean time, Port will continue to maintain the grass surface as its present venue.

Long term plans

This is a long term play by Port Adelaide and the AFL – but mostly Port Adelaide. Port have had a presence in Hong Kong for some years. The club sponsored China’s AFL International Cup side in 2014 and is doing so again in 2017 – technical and financial support is also being provided thanks to the deal struck with Shanghai CRED in 2016. The club also has full time development officers in Southern China and around Shanghai and run an Auskick-type program in 14 international schools in the Shanghai area – which, thanks to MJK will now be expanding to Xian. The AFL itself is chipping in $250,000 for development in Southern China.

Port have also struck a deal with Shandong Sports University and the Shandong Research Centre of Sports Science that will open up opportunities to develop world-leading sports science research for all parties through collaborations in teaching, research, education, experiential learning and placement opportunities.

Port Adelaide are expected to submit a five year plan for its China venture to the league this week.

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