After signing a multi-million-dollar partnership in April and having its own TV show and home matches broadcast to millions every week on China Central Television, Port Adelaide Football Club is beginning to make sizeable inroads into the world’s biggest untapped market.
Back home in Australia, it is also working hard to connect with the Chinese community by targeting the more than 12,000 Chinese students who come to Adelaide to study each year.
The club’s next goal is to play a match for premiership points in China in 2017.
The AFL is expected to announce in the coming days or weeks if and when the Shanghai match will be played.
Port Adelaide China and government relations general manager Andrew Hunter began at the club in March 2015. We caught up with him to talk about the club’s road to China.
What was the motivation for the expansion into China?
The CEO Keith Thomas is a really innovative thinker. Australia is a country of 24 million people. There are 100 professional sporting teams here – about the same number as there are in the United States, which of course has a much larger population. So for us to compete on that level I think we need to expand our thinking. We’re still a community club that’s looking to compete on a national and now international level so it’s very necessary to keep pushing the frontier of what’s possible.
The proposed game in Shanghai is set to be a celebration of Aussie culture, what might that include?
We think that football provides a great window into Australian culture but it’s not the only one. So if we can bring with us those businesses who are interested in showcasing premium Australian food and wine, iconic Australian tourism and education experiences then I think we are looking at a platform of cultural diplomacy that’s going to be really significant. We can take those businesses over and provide that bridge between Australia and China and also help Chinese people understand a little bit more about Australians and a little bit more about the commercially attractive elements of Australia and South Australia.
We’re a national brand in the national league so we’re interested in partnering with all Australian companies and around the game we’re really looking at a festival of Australia. That said, South Australian companies have got an extraordinary amount to offer. There’s a real synergy between what the Chinese consumer wants, which is increasingly a premium healthy product that’s trusted, these are things that South Australia can provide.
Could it become an annual fixture?
If you look at where other clubs and perhaps businesses have made a mistake in China, we don’t want to jump in and jump out. We’ve got a three-year agreement with our commercial partner, we’d love to have a three-year agreement for the game and then we can start really building some momentum and look at where things are at after those three years. If we’re successful I think we’ll definitely be in it for the long term and we really hope that the game continues to build a presence in China. It’s a great sport and I think one that will be attractive to that audience.
How did Port Adelaide’s involvement with China begin?
It started in the back end of 2013 with a relationship with the Hong Kong Football Club – a reciprocal membership arrangement, which was the brain child of Matthew Richardson, the club’s GM – Marketing and Consumer Business.
From there Port Adelaide started conceiving the idea to engage with China initially through Hong Kong because that’s was where the relationship started, developing a range of contacts through an event we became more aware of Team China and the Southern China Australian Football League, which Hong Kong was involved in. In 2014 we supported the Chinese National team to go to the International Cup in Melbourne and from there we looked to expand our interests into China.
When I came on board, largely our interests were limited to Hong Kong. So I thought we really needed to change our perspective and start looking specifically at Mainland China.
We looked at attracting Chinese investors with an eye on Australia to our games. We held a range of events at our games to get these people to be more aware of football. We arrived at a point late last year where we had one commercial prospect from Shanghai, and we went on to sign up Shanghai Cred as our first commercial partner.
The club worked with 57 Films to produce a weekly “AFL Show” featuring the Power’s Chinese recruit Chen Shaoliang and Port Adelaide highlights for China Central Television. How has it been received on CCTV?
We thought of a way to increase the awareness of Australian football by having a show that showed the Port Adelaide footy club and football through the eyes of a Chinese National. The audiences of between half a million and just under two million a week are pretty exceptional for the first year showing a sport which has absolutely no history in China. Then very quickly CCTV established there was an interest in Australian football and they wanted to show matches as well.
How has it snowballed from there?
Port Adelaide’s Round 3 and Round 5 home matches against Essendon and Geelong were also shown on CCTV. The Port Adelaide Essendon match was watched by 2 million people and the second match on April 23 at Adelaide Oval on a Saturday night against Geelong was viewed by 3.8 million people in China, making it the most watched home and away match in the history of the sport.
That was an extraordinary outcome and from there we started talking to CCTV about the possibility of showing a game every week including all of Port Adelaide’s home games. Now we’re seeing a consistency in the television audience, which suggests there is a level of interest in the game. Each week now there’s two hits of AFL on CCTV 5. We’d love to roll over the agreement. The AFL’s renegotiating all of its broadcasting agreements for next year but I think there is a level of goodwill that we can continue this relationship with China. It’s a massive audience and it’s a great opportunity for the AFL. We’ve built up a level of momentum and I think they understand it would be a shame to step back from that now.”
Does Port Adelaide have any members in China?
There’s no real history of sporting club membership in China, EPL (English Premier League) clubs have tried to get people to pay for membership but because there’s no history of it, it doesn’t make any sense to a Chinese person to pay money to become a member. In Australia, people pay for their membership because it’s part of their contribution to the club and it’s part of their sense of belonging and ownership but there’s not really the same thing in China at the moment so we’re very careful not to try and replicate the same thing there as we do here. What we’re finding on the other hand is Chinese students who are here are becoming members because they see Port Adelaide as the club for China.
We’ve got a program of activities, 50 Chinese students come to every one of our home games, they are hosted before the game, Jinsong gives and explanation of Australian football and they’re part of the march from the mall. When they start wearing the scarf they feel part of something bigger, which is really important. Becoming members of the club shows there’s that level of engagement and being able to maintain that level of engagement after the students go back to China is really important. We’ve just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Australia China Youth Association so we’re looking at how we can replicate the Adelaide Oval experience in other states. Chinese students across Australia are seeing Port Adelaide as their club. ACYA contacted the club before we signed the agreement and said ‘we’ve got 20 Chinese students in Perth who are counting down the rounds until Port Adelaide plays Fremantle in Perth because they want to go to a Port Adelaide match’, unfortunately we lost that match, the point is that these students are seeing Port Adelaide as being China’s team and their team. More and more they’re coming to us so we need to make sure we continue to engage them so they continue to feel that way.
What have been the keys to Port Adelaide’s success in China so far?
I think the thing that’s unique about the way we’ve gone about it is that we’ve started from a point of cultural understanding. In China, it’s a very complex and different cultural, political and economic environment so we knew we had to be in there for the long term.
We started building up our narrative and our connections but everything we did was with that long-term view in mind. China is very hard to break through – 85 per cent of foreign companies going to China end up leaving having lost money but I think the way we’ve gone about it is slightly different. We had a long-term approach based on a real desire to engage with China culturally.
We’ve achieved a commercial outcome a lot of people thought wasn’t possible. Now we see a real possibility having broken through to keep broadening our contacts there to keep being involved in conversations that are commercially interesting.
There’s two important elements to being successful in China –the first one is investing and thinking and strategising about the long term. Chinese people across business and politics think in centuries whereas in Australia we think in much shorter terms and we have to get out of that thinking.
The second thing is a deep commitment to inter-cultural engagement. Not working on the assumption that things will be similar there as it is here. Often if you work on the assumption it will be different it will be more accurate. So with those two things together I think the club’s pretty well placed to have a real go at it.
It’s an exciting sport and I think we need to demystify it. The athletes are extraordinarily strong, they’ve got a level of endurance, it’s a dynamic sport and it moves fast. Tactically now it’s not too dissimilar to soccer in the ways the players move and space creation. Sport really connects people in Australia. It connects community, it connects government, it connects the highest echelons of business as well.”
In our club we need to make sure that the more people who are involved in this space that they do have that level of understanding and that desire to engage more. Beyond the commercial stuff this is the beauty of what we’re doing, it’s developing a real interest in more and more people so there is that cultural understanding. Footy is a great window into Australian culture for Chinese people to understand us better and how we think and what’s important to Australians but I also think that the fact that everyone around the club now wants to understand China, its history, its people, its culture better I think there’s an inherent good to that. I think it’s going to be part of the problems that the world is going to face over the next 20 years and if we can make a modest contribution to that then I think we are achieving more than a commercial outcome.
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