Aussie Rules is not a national game and the Chinese know it

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You can’t catch a train from Geelong to Melbourne without hearing someone talk about AFL.

Even worse, everyone assumes you’re interested in the game and wants to talk to you about the weekend’s performances.

The delusion that everyone’s interested extends to the match between Port Adelaide and the Gold Coast Suns in Shanghai last week.

Some people even believe the Chinese are interested and that the game will catch on in China.

I’m sorry to disillusion them, but it won’t.

It was reported that the game attracted 4000 local fans, a paltry number when you think of China’s 1.4 billion people. Media interviews suggest some spectators didn’t know what they were watching and thought it was rugby.

Every now and again I point out to Victorians that Aussie Rules isn’t even the dominant men’s team sport in all parts of Australia.

And it’s barely played anywhere else in the world.

It’s not Rugby, Gaelic Football or Hurling, never mind football.

But I hear Victorians say in all seriousness: “Aussie Rules is played in America.”

Is it?

I suppose it depends on what you mean by “played.”

The AFL periodically runs exhibition games in the US but the US domestic competition is small.

The 2016 AFL annual report says 33 men’s teams from four divisions and eight women’s teams from two divisions played in last October’s US AFL national championship.

It does not say how many were local players.

In response to my inquiry the AFL told me that in 2016 there were approximately 1900 people playing in USAFL community club competitions.

This is much the same number as was playing ten years ago and a disappointing figure given that the USAFL’s stated aim in 2007 was to grow the game to 10,000 registered players by 2017.

By way of comparison US rugby has over 115,000 registered players, four national teams, multiple collegiate and high school sides and an emerging Olympic development pathway for elite athletes.There are over 130 adult and youth Gaelic clubs in the US.

Gaelic is played in 50 cities across the country including Albany, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Dallas, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, St. Louis, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Syracuse, Tampa and Washington DC.

The clubs play in divisional championships to qualify for the USGAA finals.

As of 2017 more than 51 per cent of registered players in the United States were born in the USA.

If developing an Aussie Rules competition in the US is difficult, having one in China is well-nigh impossible.

Finding a single oval to stage the Port Adelaide v Suns game was a challenge. What chance of having a dozen such ovals in a competitive region?

And what interest would the Chinese have in playing, or watching, a game that has no international standing?

If they’re to take up any foreign team sport they know which one it should be – the one that dominates the world, football.

Many Chinese are now aware that careers, fame and fortune can be found in football.

The government also knows that winning in football delivers international acclaim.

According to a recent ABC Foreign Correspondent’s report the government plans to have 50 million players and set up 50 thousand coaching schools in the next 10 years. The aim is to have China become a world soccer super power by 2050.

And if Chinese youth don’t want to play football they can turn to an individual, international, Olympic sport like table tennis.

Here it’s estimated 10 million Chinese currently play competitively and 300 million play occasionally. What does Aussie Rules have to offer when compared with watching the lightning speed of your country’s representative playing for an Olympic gold medal? Is anyone seriously suggesting that Collingwood v Carlton competes when it is a game of only local tribal interest and lacks the standard of athleticism that comes from international competition?

International Rugby generates players like USA representative Carlin Isles, who can run 100 metres in 10.13 seconds while Rugby League has Australian Gideon Gela-Mosby who reportedly can run the distance in 10.24 seconds.

Football has many such speedsters.

Why is Port Adelaide and the AFL pressing on with this China campaign?

The answer has next to nothing to do with developing the game in China.

It seems that the aim is to attract the attention of potential Chinese sponsors and alert them to the possibility that they can win the hearts and minds of Australians by sponsoring the game.

This is precisely what Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant is doing in sponsoring the Canberra Raiders Rugby League team.

What better way to have Australians think well of you and counter allegations that your company is an evil spyware agency than to sponsor the league team in the national capital?

And the same goes for property investors and Chinese who buy big cattle stations.

What better way to counter the xenophobic ranting of One Nation than to be seen as a good guy sponsoring an AFL team?

According to the Australian Financial Review, Port Adelaide has secured $4 million in sponsorship, including funds from Chinese property developer, Shanghai CRED, which recently purchased the Kidman cattle properties in partnership with mining magnate Gina Rinehart.

The Shanghai game is said to have cost $4 million to stage.

State governments and the AFL itself made a contribution, making Port Adelaide a net beneficiary and explaining why it is the strongest advocate for a regular Shanghai fixture.

By Paul Malone
Sydney Morning Herald

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