By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Grabbing a slice of China's huge market has proved elusive for an array of foreign sports but the full-contact game of Australian Rules is planning to tackle the nation head-on with a soft-power offensive backed by business and diplomacy.
The "footy diplomacy" kicks off this weekend when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang watches Port Adelaide Power's season-opener against the Sydney Swans at the Sydney Cricket Ground along with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.Then in May, after a year of meticulous planning, Port and the Gold Coast Suns clash at an athletics stadium in Shanghai, the first regular season Australian Football League (AFL) match to be contested in China.
A bruising, fast-tempo game played on cricket ground-sized pitches, AFL is supported with religious fervour in Australia's southern states but is virtually unknown overseas and generally bewildering to the uninitiated.
Taking AFL to China might appear to be a tough sell, given the country has no tradition of full-contact team sports and most locals are oblivious to the game's existence.
Not so, according to Power chief executive Keith Thomas, who claims the match will be sold out and that his team's engagement with China has already netted A$6 million ($4.59 million) in new revenues.
"For Port Adelaide, (the China game) is already a success," Thomas told Reuters.
"We think it will be one of the great sporting moments for our code. We feel the game is just part of a significant, broader strategy for Port Adelaide."
The Power will put in A$3 million of the estimated $4 million costs of putting on the game, with the AFL and Australia's national tourism authority also contributing.
China's state TV will broadcast the match to an audience of millions, having televised a number of AFL games last year, including the Grand Final in September.
Last year, Port signed Chen Shaoliang, their first Chinese-born recruit, and the former basketball player from Guangdong has been a prominent ambassador for the game in China despite a serious knee injury stalling his career.
The 24-year-old forward wears the number 88 on his jersey -- eight being considered a lucky number in China -- and believes AFL can generate a following.
"Before, people only played sports like table tennis and badminton, but more and more young people are playing and watching team sports," he told Reuters.
Neither Port nor the Gold Coast are AFL heavyweights and there is no serious suggestion that they could carve out a big following in China in the same way European soccer teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid have.
Instead, the clubs see themselves as part of a greater national strategy of engagement with China, to build better relations and create more commercial opportunities with Australia's biggest trading partner.
The lofty aspirations grew from much humbler beginnings for Port, the second team in the sleepy state capital of South Australia.
With over 50,000 members in a city of 1.2 million, the club saw little room to grow in the domestic market.
"We targeted China because it's an important trading partner for South Australia and Australia," Thomas said.
"Our government was already very heavily invested in that direction.
"Our simple initial thought was that if we could position Port Adelaide as a vehicle for Chinese investors or businesses who are interested in trading with China ... we could become relevant to them."
Having invested in grass-roots initiatives in China for a number of years, Port hired Andrew Hunter, an international engagement advisor from the state premier's office, to run its China strategy.
Hunter's work helped land a multi-million dollar, three-year partnership with Chinese property developer Shanghai CRED, announced last April.
The AFL's China foray has also won political backing, with Prime Minister Turnbull championing the sport when the match was announced in Shanghai last year.
The symbolism of China's number two leader Li attending a game in Australia on Saturday will do little to hurt the game's profile in the Asian superpower, officials said.
The Shanghai match promises similar political patronage from both countries, while also acting as a vehicle for a trade delegation and a window into China for Australian companies.
It fits Australia's agenda of opening up new markets for goods and services in China aside from commodities, according to the Australia China Business Council.
"While the rocks and crops era will continue, the value-added goods and services (era) means you will need to understand the consumer better and be more sophisticated and nuanced in how you present your product," vice president Sean Keenihan said. "AFL is unique ... And we want to brand ourselves as unique and of the highest quality. We're resilient and we're robust. These are the traits that are so obvious when you take in an AFL football match."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)