AFL kicks off in China
Andrew Hunter on how Port Adelaide took the Australian game to the world
The speed and spectacle of Aussie Rules makes it a captivating game to play and watch, yet the uniquely Australian code has resisted international recognition.
In 2015, Port Adelaide set-out to change this, with great success. By 2019 the club had played three in-season AFL matches in Shanghai, attracted new major sponsors and featured in a series of significant moments in the Australia-China relationship.
Andrew Hunter worked as General Manager (China Engagement) at Port Adelaide Football Club between 2015 and 2020. He shares his experiences of this fascinating period.
It was an ambitious goal. Australian Football was unknown in China. We had to adopt an inter-cultural mindset and anticipate different needs formed by a different world view. This was challenging, but also made the experience fascinating.
The name itself contributed to confusion (it translates as ‘soccer’). After learning that NFL was called American-style Olive Ball (named after the shape of the ball) and rugby was called English-style Olive Ball, we settled on calling our game Australian-style Olive Ball. This helped us explain the game more clearly.
Fundamentally we had to demonstrate how our sport could bring value to our counterparts and friends in China. Because Aussie Rules is so uniquely Australian, we believed it was a great carrier of our culture and a good way of developing a deeper understanding of our country. We also thought it was an opportunity for Chinese companies looking to Australia to develop a deeper relationship with the Australian people by demonstrating an interest in our much-loved sport.
The first game, held in 2017, had a fantastic carnival-like atmosphere. The local audience appeared fascinated by the player’s skill and athleticism, proving that you don’t have to understand the sport to enjoy the spectacle. Even the security guards got carried away by the atmosphere and were seen kicking footballs to each other after the game.
Six thousand Port Adelaide supporters travelled from Australia to watch the game, which in itself was extraordinary. There was a strong appetite amongst fans to be part of an historic moment.
Overall the three AFL games played in Shanghai between 2017 and 2019 brought thousands of Australians and Chinese nationals together in a very positive context
We quickly set-up a WeChat presence and produced highlights packages with Mandarin commentary to make the game palatable to a tentative Chinese audience. When producing content, we embedded the sport in a broader Australian context. We took players out to different parts of South Australia and promoted them based on their broader interests, such as surfing. A television deal with the national broadcaster, CCTV, and use of digital channels extended our reach to millions of people across China.
In 2019, the game became part of a broader, government-endorsed program of activity. In collaboration with the Australian government and the AFL, we established a ‘Festival of Australia’ which featured trade expeditions, a tourism showcase, and sporting and cultural activities. Forty-three events were held across 10 cities over a two-week period, culminating in the AFL match between Port Adelaide and St Kilda in Shanghai. Great vision and leadership resulted in different sectors working together under one umbrella program to promote our national interests and achieve great impact.
Everyone at the club was incredibly proud of what we had achieved. Seeing the happiness and pride of the travelling Port Adelaide fans in 2017 was especially memorable for me.
I recall talking to one particular supporter who had grown-up in the western suburbs of Adelaide. She was a university student and I suspect had to save hard to make it to China. The atmosphere in Shanghai in the days leading into the game inspired her. Surrounded by fellow-supporters in a thriving global city elevated her idea of what was possible. If Port Adelaide could pull this off, she told me, then it was also possible for her to achieve great things too.
Overwhelmingly the players enjoyed the experience and were invested in what the club was trying to achieve… even when this meant travelling half-way across globe to play a match in the middle of an AFL season. Unlike other sports stars, AFL players don’t get many opportunities to compete overseas, so this was a special opportunity for them.
New major-level sponsorships aren’t easy to come by, but Port Adelaide was able to attract two during this period. We opened up new commercial avenues, outside of the traditional sports sponsorship pool. This venture again demonstrated Port Adelaide’s capacity to push the boundaries of what was deemed possible, uninhibited by precedent or those who thought their goal unlikely.
During this period, representatives from both the Chinese and Australian governments came together around activities connected with the game. This demonstrated how sport can provide a positive context for diplomatic engagement. Of equal importance, was the sport’s capacity to reach a popular audience and encourage a deeper understanding between cultures. Through shared experiences and understanding we create an enabling environment for good foreign policy.
Read more about Andrew Hunter’s experiences of taking Australian Football to China in his book ‘Port Adelaide to Shanghai: Taking Australia’s Game to the World’.