The main talking point this week in AFL circles has been air-quality; and no, Melbourne has not suddenly developed a pollution problem. The air quality in question has been in Shanghai where, in an attempt to increase the global reach of the one country code, Port Adelaide took on the Gold Coast Suns for “competition points” on Sunday.
The “competition points” aspect is highlighted as in a series of unfortunate quotes during the week team representatives claimed that the AFL was the first “western sport” to play a competitive match in China.
Unfortunate, as the Asian giant already has well-established basketball and baseball leagues, and you can’t get much more ‘Western’ than that. Perhaps they meant to say “Australian sport”. Even that is way off the mark as Australian football teams have been playing extremely competitive matches in China as part of the Asian Champions League for years.
Australia is an isolated country but their fear of Chinese conditions over the last fortnight have reached new levels of ignorance. Playing in Shanghai was deemed a serious health risk to the finely tuned AFL athletes and there was even a supposed threat of a sand storm – maybe they got Shangh-ai mixed up with Dub-ai.
To further ramp up the ‘discomfort’ levels the (large) Port squad even had to fly “cattle class“ to the match. The desire to win a new fan base in China and spread the gospel of AFL to new frontiers is of course laudable and for that the Port president, TV host David “Kochy” Koch, deserves credit.
He is also following the lead of much bigger codes, such as the NFL and NBA in the US, who have set out on a path of global domination. The NFL have played matches at Wembley, for example, and the NBA have been playing in China since 2004, Shanghai to be exact.
Koch and the AFL are also keenly aware of the vast sums of money available for professional sport in China – witness the huge salaries being offered to join the Chinese Super League and Alibaba’s staggering $100m investment in rugby union in the country.
Power already have a sponsorship deal with Shanghai billionaire Guo Jie Gui. So why not grab a bigger slice of that very enticing pie? The AFL also knows that to expand further they have to do it outside Australia’s borders.
The sport saturates the domestic market to such an extent already that it cannot realistically grow more. The AFL is already comfortably the biggest football code in the country, although looking nervously over their shoulders at soccer, which continues to make strides.
League has hit its ceiling and remains popular in only two states, NSW and Queensland, and union has hit a major speedbump due to the poor performance of their Super Rugby teams. Port Adelaide are also simply honouring that great Australian tradition of having a go.
The AFL and Koch are (of course) claiming the match, played in a heavily modified athletics stadium built in 1934, as a major triumph and on the surface it certainly was. All 10,964 seats were ‘sold’, though not filled, and the pavilions for Australian tourism groups and entrepreneurs selling Aussie drinks and food were popular.
Pity perhaps that over half of those visiting the pop-up pavilions are already well acquainted with Australian attractions and produce as they travelled from Adelaide to see the match. Perhaps they should have mentioned the boost for Chinese tourism! Adelaide also claimed the four competition points on offer for their “home match”, so in Kochy’s own words it was a “win-win-win”.
“Set aside everything else for a second – something like this brings all these people together,” Koch said, gesturing around the crowd. “That’s what I love – there’s my granddaughter, playing Auskick against some Chinese kid.”
In terms of brand recognition Port have a fair way to go though as many Chinese fans at the ground still thought the game they were watching was “British rugby”.
But it’s one small step – and now that they are no longer terrified about air-quality and sand-storms – Port’s China-push can proceed in a more rational and ultimately more successful fashion.
It was a weekend of upsets in the NRL with the lowly Newcastle Knights defeating highly rated Canberra 34-20 and the Gold Coast Titans recording one of the greatest triumphs in the club’s history, coming from eight points down in the final 10 minutes to defeat ladderleading Melbourne 38-36.
To make the Titans’ triumph even more impressive they lost three key players to injury during the match – Jarryd Hayne (leg), Ryan Simpkins (knee) and Dan Sarginson (arm) – but a try to Tyrone Roberts and a “hail mary” courtesy of a Kane Elgey cross-field kick and Anthony Don tap-down which allowed Konrad Hurrell (below) to barge through to put the Titans ahead with a minute left.
A scintillating last minute try from captain Samu Kerevi (below) kept the Queensland Reds season alive as they recorded a ‘hoodoo-busting’ 29-24 win over the Rebels in Melbourne. It was the Reds first win on the road for two years and their first in 11 matches against Australian opponents.
So poor is the Australian Conference this season that although Queensland have just three wins from 11 outings they are sitting just three competition points behind leaders the Brumbies (3-7) and are back in the finals mix.
Normal service has been resumed with both the Swans and the Hawks on the rise. Both had been at the foot of
the table after Hawthorn lost their first four games and Sydney their first six. But the Swans have now recorded back to back victories while the Hawks have won three out of their last four.
Incredibly Hawthorn now sit just two wins out of the eight while Sydney are another win away. The Bulldogs won the Premiership last year although they finished seventh after the regular season.