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Aussie Rules football makes play for Chinese fans

'Unique' sport in rare overseas foray with sell-out game in Shanghai

(L-R) Matthew Broadbent, Jasper Pittard, Hamish Hartlett, Robbie Gray, Jared Polec and Ollie Wines lead the Port Adelaide team at training at Jiangwan Stadium, Shanghai, on April 13, 2017

SEOUL -- Chinese soccer fans are accustomed to European teams arriving in the summer for gentle exhibition games, but this Sunday two teams from a very different sport will play a match in Shanghai in front of a sell-out crowd.

The game of Australian Rules Football -- often known simply as "Aussie Rules" -- between Port Adelaide and Gold Coast Suns will also be watched by an estimated television audience of between 5 million and 10 million in China and Australia, making it the most-watched game in the history of the sport. The only other league games played outside Australia took place in nearby New Zealand.

All involved hope that the game goes off without a hitch. Five thousand fans from Adelaide will make up almost half of the 11,500 crowd. The tickets sold out in less than three hours. "I am going with all my family," said lifelong Port Adelaide fan Matthew Jones, an Adelaide native living in Shanghai. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see our team play overseas, and to see them play in Shanghai will be amazing."

The match is a major event in the Australian Football League season, with Port Adelaide seventh and Gold Coast 11th in the 18-team standings, and both anxious to improve. But there is more at stake than points. Port Adelaide has been working for three years to build relationships in China --Australia's biggest export market -- in a search for new revenue streams.

"The game can play a role in sports diplomacy," said Andrew Hunter, who leads Port Adelaide's Chinese engagement effort. "In Australia, we talk about China a lot, but we don't really understand it that much. AFL is a quintessentially Australian sport and a carrier of Australian culture." It is a great vehicle for cultural exchange and a closer relationship, he said.

Player #32 Dougal Howard and #20 Chad Wingard enter Jiangwan Stadium, Shanghai, for training

There have been positive signs. In March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attended an AFL match in Sydney, hosted by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The sport is one of the best-attended domestic tournaments in the world, with an average of 36,000 fans at league matches in 2017.

Some supporters describe Aussie Rules as a mix between rugby and soccer, while others say it is unique. The game is played between two teams of 18 players on an oval-shaped field, using an oval ball -- similar to the ball used in rugby. It also has some similarities with Gaelic Football, played in Ireland, although that sport uses a round ball and a rectangular pitch.

What is less debatable is that the game is little known in China, which prefers soccer and basketball. Zhang Tingting, of Yutang Sports, a Beijing-based sports consultancy, does not expect the sport to gain much of a foothold in the country. "It won't be easy. The sport is unfamiliar here and people just don't know about it."

The Shanghai trip poses other challenges for the historically insular AFL. There were rumors in April that tensions on the Korean Peninsula could force the game to be moved from China. And concerns have been expressed in Australia about air pollution, travel difficulties and the possibilities of food poisoning, provoking mirth from widely-traveled Australian soccer writers who follow their teams to the region every year in the Asian Champions League.

Teams are ready

Overall though, the teams are ready. "We could get delayed, there could be bad food one night," said Gold Coast star Steven May. "There are all these problems that could happen, but at the end of the day there is nothing we can do about it and the game is going ahead. We are looking forward to embracing it rather than complaining about it."

According to Hunter, there has been plenty of criticism of the Shanghai fixture in Australia. "It has been accused of being a sideshow, a distraction, a fool's errand. Everyone thought we were crazy," he said. For Zhang, there is only one way for the sport to become popular in China. "They have to start at the grassroots and get children playing, and then get some media exposure. You have to get kids playing and then make some noise, especially on social media in China. You also need local partners."

Port Adelaide has certainly been trying to whip up local enthusiasm in China. In April 2016 it signed a three-year partnership deal with property developer Shanghai Cred, whose founder Gui Guojie became a fan of the sport after attending an Adelaide game in 2015. Shanghai Cred, which has links with Australian agriculture, has agreed with Port Adelaide to hold training camps in China, sponsor Chinese Aussie Rules competitions and produce live broadcasts of games.

According to reports in Australia, audiences for some broadcast games have been close to 4 million. A 25-part AFL documentary is to air on China Central Television, the principal state broadcasting network, and AFL has been introduced in 14 schools. Port Adelaide has also been active on Weibo and WeChat, two major Chinese social media platforms, for two years.

Even with such efforts, Hunter does not expect millions of youngsters to start playing the game -- but that, he said, is not the point. "We are not looking to conquer China, but working in a targeted way to work with Chinese businesses with interest in Australia."

Australian Football League CEO Gillon McLachlan, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, founder of Shanghai Cred Real Estate Gui Guojie and Port Adelaide CEO Keith Thomas.

The results have been encouraging. "In Australia, an AFL club usually has two major sponsors of about $1 million each," said Hunter, adding that Port Adelaide has sponsorship revenue of more than $6 million -- including payments from Greaton, a Chinese property developer, and Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways, in addition to Shanghai Cred.

"We have three companies from China, and that is outstanding. We are creating new revenue streams and we are changing the financial model of the club without using traditional assets such as shirt sponsorship," Hunter said. Port Adelaide helps sponsors with branding or creating media narratives though events or games.

Port Adelaide's China venture would be more straightforward, Hunter admitted, if the club played soccer instead of Aussie Rules. Australian soccer clubs play Chinese teams at home and away on an annual basis in the Asian Champions League, and have an advantage when it comes to making inroads in the world's most populous country.

"It would be infinitely easier if we were a soccer club in the Asian Champions League, but it could be that soccer clubs don't have the resources of AFL clubs to get personnel on this," Hunter said. Port Adelaide has seven full-time staff members working on its Chinese ventures.

The China team has been working overtime of late. But Sunday's game is not the end of the club's Chinese strategy, Hunter said. "It is the culmination of a lot of hard work, but there is still more to do as we look to the future."

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