The man behind Port Adelaide’s push into Asia is a former professional volleyball player who was secured from the South Australian Premier’s Office.
Andrew Hunter has been with the Power for just two years but has steered the club’s foray into China with impressive returns.
“I think most Australian companies are looking at whether or not there are some opportunities in China and we were no different,” Hunter said of Port’s decision to explore the opportunities in the world’s most populous country.
“It was commercially motivated but we understood that we needed to build relationships over a long period and we also understood that we really wanted a fully shaped program of activities.
“Sport is of course a natural language, a common language between different peoples.”
It started with sponsoring Team China in the AFL’s International Cup competition, continued with sponsoring the South China Football League and has manifested itself in having the Power Footy skills program in 14 schools across three provinces.
At Alberton, Port’s China engagement team has expanded from two to seven full-time staff, but it is not just a locally based project.
Port Adelaide also has two full-time game development officers working in southern China and another couple in Shanghai, the venue city for the Power’s AFL premiership match against the Gold Coast on May 14.
“The idea of playing a game, I mean that was highly aspirational,” Hunter said of the showcase match.
“We didn’t know whether or not it would be possible so in a lot of ways, if we look at that starting point we’ve exceeded all expectations.
“We’ve exceeded in a lot of ways our own initial ambition and now we’re ready to really, from the game, push a lot further into new networks and different opportunities because we finally have the sport in China that we never had two years ago.”
It has already been a lot of work, and the costs associated with staging the game have levelled out at $4 million.
Club’s China strategy first appeared ambitious
Hunter, 39, has made 21 trips to China since joining Port Adelaide.
His background with the South Australian Government was in international engagement, working in countries like China and India, so he was acutely aware of the way to attract and develop contacts in that sphere.
“The first step was looking at Chinese businesses and Chinese investors, Chinese people who had an interest in Australia and we could actually help them build their business interest by using the connection that comes from a football club because sport is so powerful in Australia,” he said of Port’s strategy.
His emphasis at the club was clear. Get in the door and stay there. To that end, he arranged for Port Adelaide staff to be schooled on the Chinese culture and protocols, especially the moment of the first meeting.
“We put a hell of a lot of effort into making sure we master those moments, making sure that there was an openness to the other culture as much as possible because the football club doesn’t always have experts in this area,” he said.
“It’s not an internationally focused environment generally or traditionally.
“We’re dealing with people that are coming from a vastly different linguistic, cultural, historic, economic and political context.”
Hunter said when Port Adelaide chief executive Keith Thomas first committed to the club’s China strategy, he believed it would take a few years to secure one major sponsor and even that appeared ambitious.
“Certainly, to try and bring the AFL to China and make a success of it was unprecedented, so we were pushing into a new frontier,” Hunter reasoned.
“Now we have several sponsors at that major sponsorship level.
“We’ve brought in over $6 million as a result of our China strategy. I think we’re on the cusp of signing another major sponsor that will push it closer to $10 million than $6 million and from there I think we can keep building.”
Plans to continue to build fanbase
It has been a long journey for Hunter, who ended his teenage years at university before craving a career in volleyball.
He completed study at the University of Adelaide and at an international university in Japan — not surprisingly including Asian studies in the curriculum — before finally getting that professional volleyball contract.
He spent eight years in Europe, playing in Belgium, Italy, France and the Czech Republic while basing himself in Nice.
His experience has given him what Port Adelaide’s hierarchy considered the best possible skillset for establishing the club in China.
It would appear that mission has been accomplished, but Hunter is far from satisfied.
“I think a lot of people are thinking of the game as being an end point for what we’ve been doing over the last two years,” Hunter said.
“We have a completely different approach. We think it’s just the beginning.
“There’s going to be a large percentage of the spectators who are going to be involved in corporate hospitality. This gives us enormous scope to further develop our business in China.”
Not that the football side of things will be forgotten.
“We would like to build a fanbase there,” he said.
“We would like people to be attached to what Port Adelaide is doing. I think we have a fabulous brand where we’ve showed there is a great commitment to innovation and lateral thinking.”
He is confident the Power can make the game an annual event for at least five years.
“It has the potential of being an important part of the AFL calendar and very quickly I think we’ll be able to explore and finalise arrangements for a long-term future,” Hunter enthused.
It all appears in keeping with the lines of the Port club song: We’ll never stop, stop, stop.
By Neil Cross