International AFL: Success or Failure?

The AFL is always attempting to broaden its audience, and extend its horizons, and this week the league ventured into China for the first time. Abu Dhabi, London, and Wellington have all been attempted in numerous different types of matches since the turn of the century, but this recent move – showcased this weekend – is arguably the AFL’s most audacious.


When you think of China, sport – little lone AFL – probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. The Great Wall, communism, and the unique cuisine may be what comes to mind of the average Australian. If thinking about sport, perhaps it’s Yao Ming, the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the revolution domestic (association) football is currently having in China.


This weekend, China hosted its first AFL match for premiership points – only the second country outside Australia to host AFL games for premiership points, New Zealand being the other. A move pushed for multiple years by Port Adelaide President David Koch finally came to fruition this weekend in an impressive performance by his club over Gold Coast.


The question must be asked though; was it a success?


Gil McLachlan has labelled it a success… but was it really a success?


If we listened for the AFL’s approval on expansion success we may as well be giving GWS, and Gold Coast a green tick. The difference between the audacious one-off Chinese game a season and the recent expansion clubs is that the AFL can make GWS and Gold Coast work in environments that aren’t completely foreign to the local culture and media. In fact recent media reports suggested junior participation rates in Western Sydney have risen fifteen percent over the last year, to the demise of rugby league.


There was plenty of controversy in the lead up to the game, with the AFL failing to sign a local Chinese broadcaster until a couple days out. This would’ve had an adverse affect for local television promotion for the game, therefore limiting its exposure within China.


There was also the embarrassment some elements of the Aussie Rules media brought on itself, as one reporter quoted Travis Boak claiming it was the first time a “western sport” had been played in China. The (association) Football and Basketball media personalities obviously ate up the factually incorrect statement.


There were also concerns of the high pollution levels in Shanghai, and the illegal betting syndicates operating in China that players were warned about in advance to the game. Whilst being precautionary, the announcement wouldn’t have endeared the AFL to the local communities by publicly pushing a negative stereotype.


The ground itself was a transformed athletics, and football ground in which most of it was transformed into temporary seating as the main grandstands were so far from the playing pitch.


Whilst the playing pitch was pristine many viewers rightly pointed out all the empty seats in the supposed ‘sold out’ event. The AFL had hailed the game ‘sold out’, weeks before at a stadium which holds 25,000, reduced to 11,000 for this event, but only attracted an official crowd of 10,118 – around 880 missing fans!


Reportedly 5,000 of the crowd were travelling Australians, and many more expats– hardly growing the game. It perhaps is money being spent into a black hole, as for all the Australian investment and promotion, the AFL barely attracted any of the local population to the game.


At the same time, Chinese Football is going through a boom thanks to mass investment from the government, and businessmen. The Chinese government set itself ambitious goals last year to have 50 million participants in the sport by 2050 laid out in three different stages. This plan also includes 70,000 new pitches and 10,000 trained coaches.


China is also rumoured to be bidding for the 2030 World Cup as restrictions are set to be lifted to allow Asian nations to bid for that particular tournament.


At the same time the government is investing millions into the sport, businessmen are lining up to get their own slice of the domestic league in China.


Consecutive six time champions Ghuangzhou Evergrande have been a powerhouse and at the forefront during this revolution. They signed Italian world cup winning manager Marcello Lippi, who was then followed by Brazilian World Cup winning manager Luiz Felipe Scolari to manage the team. Some of Ghuangzhou’s current big name players include Colombian international Jackson Martinez who was signed on a record Asian transfer fee, and Brazilian international Paulinho who signed for close to $10 million.


Not to mention basketball also being one of the highest participated sports in China, it just seems this move is one a bit too audacious by the AFL.


I personally believe if this much promotion, time and focus was given to the games in New Zealand it would have been a success, and we’d have started seeing some headway by now.


Another nation not too far from Australia where AFL has a far greater chance to succeed is South Africa – the birthplace of last year’s Norm Smith Medallist Jason Johannisen.


With easily converted stadiums due to the nations love for cricket; 8,000 juniors also participate in the nation’s version of Auskick according to the ‘AFL Community’ website. A large amount of South African expats also reside in Western Australia which can only help the growth of the game in their native land.


Whilst the AFL must be commended for their attempts to grow the game, and our league’s viewership overseas like America’s NBA and NFL, I can’t help but think this investment and work ethic can be better placed elsewhere.



  1. Peter Schumacher says

    Much as I love Rules, it isn’t even Australia’s national sport, and will never be, the NRL will always rule the roost in NSW and particularly Qld.

    Whilst I would love to see it succeed overseas I would rather spend money on Tasmania and Darwin, most likely by relocating the two Queensland teams to those locations where AFL is number one and is in the blood of people who live there.

  2. An interesting perspective on the China experiment. The measure of success is subjective, from Gold Coast they make money and put on a poor show. Port show off and gain sponsorship. Grass roots has no impact and measuring growth of the sport internationally is a difficult position in the short term. Perhaps the perspective by Almanacker Tom Parker is worth a read, aerial ping pong is replacing ping pong diplomacy in China.

  3. I had wondered how many locals would have interested in footy. Obviously only a few. I am afraid to say the game was held only in Koch’s favour.

    When I watch footy at Australian pubs here in Japan, I didn’t see many Japanese people watched the unique Australian sport. Mostly I am the only Japanese to watch footy alongside experts and Australian tourists.

    Holding a game in South Africa seems a good idea and Western Bulldogs should have because of JJ.

    I’m sad that renewing the contract between Wellington city council and St Kilda Footy Club didn’t succeed. Promoting footy in the rugby territory is hard I think.

    Even it’s hard to sell footy in the country where culture is similar to Australia, so attracting footy in China is not successful I am afraid to say. Wake up AFL and Port Adelaide Footy Club. Don’t scare other clubs like how Rocket was worried.



  4. AFL is a good game, but it is now being faced with the reality of a congested sporting calender. AFL has to compete in an open market where in the southern states and Western Australia at least it has received saturation coverage for the last 20-30yrs or more. No longer can you keep other sports out of populations lounge rooms.
    Interest in the AFLW appears to be waning, it doesnt even warrant a story in most papers, and I cant seem to find it on the free to air TV. Interesting to see the skill levels of the AFLW is often commented on as being weak. However look at the skill level of the Womens soccer, Rugby Sevens, Rugby-League. The girls in the Rugby codes have brilliant skills honed by playing Touch Football and Oz Tag.
    AFLX is an interesting experiment, I actually quite like watching it but I wouldnt be paying money to go and see it. AFL will dominate the domestic scene for a decade or two yet, but I think as the world gets smaller in the entertainment arena it will struggle. How do you compete with a Soccer world cup or a re-united Rugby-Union/League. Interesting times ahead.

Leave a Comment