Opinion

Why is the AFL outdoing the A-League in Asia?

A Power fan and a Saints fan pose for a photograph during the 2019 AFL round 11 match between the St Kilda Saints and the Port Adelaide Power in Shanghai. Source: Getty Images

When it comes to doing business in China, while A-League teams are passing the ball around without achieving much in the way of penetration, Aussie Rules clubs are scoring points with long-range field goals.

Football is the world game, of that there is no doubt.

Wherever you travel, whichever airport you are waiting in, whatever train you find yourself taking, there is always a conversation to be had about football. 

This universal language should then give A-league clubs an instant way in to the closest markets to Australia, especially the biggest of all - China.   

Yet it is Port Adelaide and the AFL that are showing the way. 

It should be a source of frustration for all football fans that a sport almost unknown and virtually incomprehensible to China, the world’s most populous country and second biggest economy, is finding new revenue streams within the Middle Kingdom while football’s success has been intermittent at best.  

Port Adelaide, not one of the sport’s biggest clubs, has shown vision, determination and imagination in its China strategy.

When talk started of staging an annual competitive game in Shanghai, that first kicked off in 2017, there was plenty of derision both in the world of football and also inside Aussie Rules itself.  

But this was no normal attempt to develop a sport and win fans in China, something that has been tried with varying degrees of success by the giant European football clubs and other sports.

That has not been the intention. 

Instead Port Adelaide has gone down a different route.

The annual game in Shanghai breaks even but it provides a hook to attract Australian companies looking to do business in China and Chinese companies looking to do the same in Australia.

Whatever the political relations between the two countries, economically they are closely linked - with China by far the biggest market for Australian goods. 

It was not a lucky coincidence that Adelaide announced a major sponsorship deal last month with PwC, a leading global brand.

PwC openly talked of Adelaide's China links matching the philosophy of the company.

There have been other deals too.

Over $6 million worth of Port Adelaide's revenue now comes from China. In a short space of time that is impressive. 

Yet there could be more to come.

Adelaide is not just leveraging itself as a platform that facilitates business exchange between Australia and China  but is also getting involved in the international education sector.

Facilitating the flow of students and education partnerships between the two countries could become a major source of income.

These are huge industries and set to grow. 

Other AFL clubs are starting to follow suit, with St Kilda, for example, leveraging its involvement in the June game to strengthen links with Australian businesses that are interested in China. 

A-League teams play Chinese opposition every year in competitive AFC Champions League games yet still have struggled to match Port Adelaide’s success.

A-League teams also have the opportunity to bring Chinese players to Australia - something beyond AFL’s capability - but rarely do so.

Australian national teams play in international tournaments with China but still there is little consistent engagement. 

Adelaide may have been helped by certain factors - the investment of a Chinese businessman and governmental support - but the main reason for what could become a major success is vision and hard work. 

The club knew there were opportunities in China and were determined to see what was out there.

This has taken time, an understanding of China, hard work and a desire to build genuine long-term relationships.

There are no quick returns but it shows that with the right vision and if clubs put in the time and effort then rewards will eventually follow. 

Football should not laugh at AFL’s efforts but need to learn from the rival sport and be inspired.

If the AFL can do it then surely so can the A-League.