On the spectrum of whacky ideas, playing an AFL game in China must rank near the top.
Not only is there no understanding of Australia’s indigenous game on the mainland, the code will never rival football, basketball or table tennis for participation or spectators.
Yet even before the opening bounce of Sunday’s inaugural match in Shanghai between Port Adelaide and the Gold Coast Suns, the concept can claim to be a success.
Port, which championed the idea of a game in China, has attracted $4 million and 12 new partners to the club, and created a vehicle for greater bilateral engagement, which was previously absent in the often prickly relationship between Canberra and Beijing.
“Yes it was a crazy idea to play a game in China … but sport is non-threatening and helps to break down barriers,” said Port’s chief executive Keith Thomas.
While Mr Thomas and his chairman, David Koch, have championed the idea of “sports diplomacy” and using Port as a vehicle to build a better relationship between the two countries, their starting point was how to grow the club.
Realising they couldn’t compete for sponsorship dollars with their more fancied rivals like Collingwood or West Coast in the crowded Australian market, Port looked overseas and quickly realised China was the obvious place to go.
They then positioned the club as a conduit for Chinese companies wanting to improve their community standing in Australia and for Australian companies going the other way.
Amazingly in a bilateral trade relationship worth a $137 billion last year, there are very few vehicles that afforded such an opportunity.
That explains how Port was able to attract 20 partners for the game in Shanghai – 12 new ones – and $4 million in sponsorship which will ensure the game breaks even in its first year. These partners include Chinese property developer Shanghai CRED, which recently purchased the Kidman cattle properties in partnership with mining magnate Gina Rinehart.
Beyond this Mr Thomas said five of the 12 new sponsors have expressed an interest in being associated with Port at a “major partner” level, which involves a commitment of more than $1 million annually.
“We have spent three years feeling our way in China,” he said.
“The game [in Shanghai] is only a very small part of the business opportunity.”
In addition Port is looking to collaborate with Chinese universities in areas like applied sports science, which is part of Beijing’s larger push for a more active and healthy society, while the club is also providing business matching and conference opportunities.
“We’re like a dating service,” Mr Thomas said.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game is that Port’s own supporters have got behind it and used the match as a reason to visit China.
At least 5000 fans have made the trip from Adelaide ensuring the 11,600 seat stadium is a sell-out. The other seats will be filled by expatriates living around greater China, while more than 3000 hospitality tickets have been sold to companies including Rio Tinto, investment bank Moelis & Company and airline Cathy Pacific.
The game itself, the first for competition points played outside Australia, will be held at a stadium built in 1933 by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, but which has been used as a golf driving range in more recent times.
It has been modified for the match and Port hopes to change the configuration again next year to seat more than 30,000 people.
By Angus Grigg