AFL Asia: Footy’s New Focus

The training camps have finished, so has the worst of the running, the 3km time trial have been run and won, the footballs have come out, and will stay out now, for AFL players across the nation, things are becoming serious. Footy is on the way. So, as all players, from all clubs, have the eyes firmly planted on running out in the respective jumpers for round one, other eyes are wondering elsewhere. Football has a new focus for those in club and league headquarters that is set to shape the AFL’s transition from the eras of professionalisation and equalisation, to modernisation. The game has one eye on Asia, as capturing the ever-growing Asian market has become central and critical to the league and its club’s off-field strategy.

Port Adelaide read the tea leaves a few years ahead of the rest, being at the forefront of the game’s most daring – and successful – push into the Asian market. The David Koch led foray has been at the forefront of transforming Port Adelaide from a football club on AFL life-support surrounded by too few loved ones to a critical but stable position with hopes of a big future. The Power orchestrated the first game for premiership points played by a Western sports code in the world’s most populous city in the world’s most populous country, Shanghai, China. Port Adelaide has gleaned many a financial reward from its trailblazing “China Strategy” including upwards of twenty new sponsors such as the $3 million deal with Chinese firm MJK International Holdings. The Mongrel Punt can also reveal that Port Adelaide is budgeting to make a profit of $500,000 for this year’s third game at the South Australian Government sponsored Adelaide Arena in Shanghai. Considering the costs encountered in compensating Gold Coast and now St Kilda for a home game, as well as transforming the athletics stadium, damaged in World War II, into an AFL venue – $4.5 million in the first year alone – that is a very impressive result.

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What the Power have done for the growth of the game internationally has also been truly extraordinary. Being in April 2016, the Port Adelaide Football Club, in conjunction with the AFL, signed a broadcast agreement with Chinese based television station, CCTV allowing it to broadcast one home and away game per round (eleven of which feature Port Adelaide every year) nationally into China. The first game broadcasted between Port Adelaide and Essendon back in 2016 reached an audience of approximately 2 million people. The now annual game in Shanghai – described by the club as a symbol of its commitment to China – are amongst the most watched exhibitions of Australian Rules Football in the sport’s history with up to 10 million people viewing last year’s game against the Gold Coast. To put this figure into perspective, last year’s brilliant Grand Final attracted a peak audience of 4.3 million people. The China Strategy has changed the scale of the game.

The club has signed an agreement with the AFL that means it will be playing games in Shanghai until at least 2023, with St Kilda it’s opponent for at least the next three years (at the request of the Victorian Government seeking to strengthen trade ties with China). But the Power are also considering increasing this commitment to two games per year, specifically two away games in the space of a week, potentially against Greater Western Sydney due to the AFL’s preference to have a Sydney-based team involved.

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However, the Port Adelaide pioneers are far from the only ones who have discovered where the goalposts have moved. While, the Power have called “dibs” on China, Adelaide, Essendon, GWS and Richmond are fighting amongst themselves for the other front seat of India. Whereas, the Crows have also followed the lead of their crosstown rivals through their acquisition of the Australian Baseball League (ABL) team Adelaide Bite, designed to, in their words, “broaden its reach across Australia, Asia and the United States.”

But if one was to have any doubt that those at AFL House are not too in search of Asian appeal look no further then this month’s AFLX tournament. The shorten version of the game is tailored made to a modern, international and specifically, Asian market where AFL sized ovals are not freely available like in countries such as China. While, the AFL struggles how to best offer the product to a reluctant domestic audience rusted on to the main game, perhaps AFLX’s most tangible contribution thus far is the fact that Port Adelaide are using the format to teach the sport in schools across China. But is that enough to satisfy fears, inside and outside of AFL House and clubland, that the radical concept is taking too much airtime away from another of the AFL’s pet projects in AFLW?

The twenty-first century has been declared the Asian Century due to the emerging dominance the continent is set to play in world affairs and on Western culture in the upcoming century. As AFL chief executive Gillion McLachlan seeks a legacy that builds upon that of his predecessors by transporting an already professional and equalised league and game into a modernised age – then he cannot afford to sit idle.

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