Australian football is coming to China—where no one cares about it

Reaching for it.
Reaching for it.
Image: Tom Reynolds/Wikimedia, licensed under CC-BY-2.0
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Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull began his two-day visit in China today (April 14). Along with 1,000 or so business leaders he brought along, he’s seeking more trade opportunities in what has become his nation’s largest export market. He started off in Shanghai by announcing something big, at least to folks back home: Australian rules football—not to be confused with soccer—is spreading its wings to China.

Next year, teams from the Australian Football League (AFL)—Port Adelaide FC and a yet-to-be-determined opponent—will square off in Shanghai for premiership points. As Turnbull noted, it will be the first AFL match played for premiership points outside the Australasia region, and just the second played outside Australia (New Zealand had the first in 2013).

Behind the match is a Chinese property developer called Shanghai Cred Real Estate, which is partnering with Port Adelaide FC in other ways, too. As part of a three-year deal, it will help promote the sport in China through broadcasts of AFL games, hosting of training camps, and the sponsoring of local Chinese teams, among them Guangdong AFL and South China AFL.

Shaped like an olive.
Shaped like an olive.
Image: HappyWaldo/Wikimedia, licensed under CC-BY-3.0

Of course, there’s just one problem: The vast majority of people in China do not care about the sport, or even know about it. In China the term “olive ball” refers to three different sports: rugby, American football, and Australian football. None is popular.

The deal is underway nevertheless, with a Port Adelaide home game against Essendon aired last Friday on China Central Television (CCTV)—the first AFL game to be shown on Chinese TV. Some Chinese sports lovers were a bit disappointed.

“I only watch top matches like NFL,” one blogger commented under a CCTV Weibo post about the match (link in Chinese), referring to the US’s National Football League. Others said they prefer watching rugby. One suggested that the sports channel (5+) show some NBA games instead.

Among the “olive ball sports,” the other two have a head start in trying to interest Chinese viewers. The NFL streams its games via Chinese online portals, and coaches local sportscasters on how to better explain the game. More than 12 million Chinese fans (link in Chinese) have watched the Super Bowl every year for the past five years, according to the NFL.

And last week Alisports—a subsidiary of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba—signed a deal with World Rugby to develop the sport in China. The partnership aims to create a million Chinese rugby players in 10 years to prepare for the Olympics. Alibaba will also broadcast rugby games on its online portals and sell merchandise on its shopping sites.