The AFL is set to open an office in China as it seeks to establish itself in the country’s market, despite a drop off in crowd numbers at this year’s annual fixture in Shanghai.
Marketed as a sell out by AFL sources, the 25,000 capacity venue only attracted a crowd of 9,412 for Port Adelaide’s win, down from 10,689 and 10,118 for the two Power v Gold Coast Suns matches in previous years.
The AFL’s new office based in Shanghai will open in the next few weeks, according to the League’s general manager of China, David Stevenson, and be staffed by two full-time employees.
“They’ll be primarily focused on driving commercial outcomes and building long-term partnerships with either Australian companies trying to grow into China or Chinese companies trying to grow into Australia,” Stevenson told AFL.com.au.
“They’ll also be driving strong broadcast partnerships.
“We have a game a week on TV there and some strong social media coverage,” he said.
“Thirdly, the government plays such an important role, so it shows the government that we are long-term committed to China and building those partnerships.”
The AFL wants to be involved with China because of a desire to expand, and with 1.2 million people of Chinese descent living in Australia, the link is already there.
It also looms as a revenue source to help fund other areas, such as the NAB AFL Women’s competition and grassroots footy.
This is why a Chinese-focused Auskick centre has been opened in the Sydney suburb of Hurstville.
Ultimately, what would really help football take off in China is a top-line Chinese footballer, which the AFL recognises as crucial to building awareness, whether in the men’s or women’s competition.
“We certainly think that saying ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ is very important,” Stevenson said.
How that happens could come in a similar path to American Mason Cox, who was a college basketballer before becoming a key cog in Collingwood’s forward line.
“There’s tens of thousands of elite basketball players in China and we would love to expose them, and ideally one day, have a Chinese elite player playing our game,” Stevenson said.
The focus is on getting into the youth though, with footy being taught in 21 Chinese schools.
Critics argue the AFL should put money into other areas, such as having a team in Tasmania, rather than directing that money towards China.
“I wouldn’t buy into whether it’s more appropriate to spend money either here or there, but what I do know is there’s a significant growing people with Chinese descent living in Australia. It’s over 1.2 million people,” Stevenson said.
“They’re strong trade opportunities between the two countries and if we can drive some of that commercial revenue, it’ll allow us to invest into some of those domestic markets and community football, then that seems like a win-win.”