Port Adelaide’s General Manager of China, Andrew Hunter, started by telling Bullpen, “I would aim for Australian Rules football to be an exhibition sport at the next home Olympics. It is a big aim but I would like to see it played should Australia successfully bid for a Summer Olympics, which could be as early as 2032 or 2036.”
Having played a leading role in developing and executing Port Adelaide’s strategy of building diplomatic and intercultural understanding between Australia and China, he considered the bigger picture potential of internationalising Australian rules.
Bullpen: If Australia is not successful in winning a bid to host an Olympics, say the 2032 Olympic Games, even though it will be highly unlikely but would you encourage the AFL to proceed with the plan of trying to get it as an exhibition sport elsewhere?
Andrew Hunter: “I think the most natural thing would be for it to happen in Australia, at a home Olympics. That would certainly be the most likely scenario. But irrespective of whether that comes to pass, having a goal like that puts an ambitious timeframe to the idea of internationalising the sport. It would add impetus to the movement that’s already started to take place.”
BP: When should the AFL begin trying to implement the Olympic Games opportunity?
AH: “If the AFL shared this ambitious vision, they would need to start immediately. The AFL is at the moment working on such a strategy to export the sport, and appears to have a focus on India, China and Southeast Asia. There already is an AFL International Cup which is a triennial event, so there are associations in different countries. Some of the administrative infrastructure is emerging but if the AFL shared this aspiration, they would need to move quickly.”
BP: We’re coming towards the end of 2017, and Port Adelaide has taken a big international step with its China strategy with a match played in Shanghai for Premiership points. Can you reflect on how the club’s Chinese strategy has been executed so far?
AH: “As an Australian Rules football club engaged in China, we understood that we had to go about it in a very different way. The sport is currently unique to Australia, so we couldn’t try and copy the strategies of other international sports; we had to do things very differently and be targeted in what we’re doing.
“The initial strategy that we developed has been vindicated to a point but we understand we’re just at the beginning. We have achieved some modest success – for example we’ve been able to play a game in China and create a greater awareness of what we’re trying to do there. But we see this as just the beginning and we have an extensive vision of what can be achieved in the future.”
BP: The match has been played and the week leading up to the match has received a lot of press. How does the club continue to strengthen engagement and build relationships all year round?
AH: “I think there’s a bit of a misconception about what we do in China and the role the game plays in that. The game is just a moment in a much broader engagement in China. But it is a moment around which all our partners, both in Australia and China, can coalesce in the moment that captures the imagination of the Australian public.
“We are actively engaged in China all year round, we have a school program called Power Footy, we have a business-to-business platform that brings our Australian and Chinese partners together, and we have significant Chinese commercial partners. We are doing thought leadership pieces on sports diplomacy, working with the Australia China Business Council, we have regular communication with the governments of both countries about the value of what we’re doing to the bilateral relationship all year round. The game is a moment – and is a very important moment – but it is important to remember that our engagement is broad-based and includes regular, high-level interaction on a government, business and people level.”
BP: To widen the scope, there’s obviously Port Adelaide, but Adelaide United in the A-League and the state government are other examples of soft cultural and commercial exchanges between the state and China.
AH: “I think it’s quite a visionary approach that the South Australian government has taken, so what they’re looking at appears to be a more complete engagement.
“Other state governments of course have got their strategies in China and Southeast Asia but often they are purely a commercial strategy – trade and investment strategies. What the South Australian government has done has created a strategy whereby trade and investment is a priority, but cultural and sporting exchange is also recognised as the basis for understanding between South Australia and the world – and this understanding is the foundation on which strong trade and investment relationships can be built.
“In taking a different approach, through the release in 2015 a sports diplomacy strategy was released, it became clear that its thinking was ahead of its time and broke new ground.”
BP: Where else would other international opportunities lie?
AH: “You could certainly argue the case that there was a missed opportunity not to have some sort of football exhibition as part of the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. I know Adelaide is keen to have the Commonwealth Games in 2028 or 2032, that could be an opportunity to integrate some sort of AFL exhibition – as a milestone on the path of becoming an exhibition sport at the Olympics.”
BP: What has Chinese representatives learnt from spending time in Adelaide and engaging with the sporting and business community. What do you think they might have observed?
AH: “Our Chinese partners have been surprised and excited by what they have seen in Adelaide. We had a sponsor this year, a company based out of Xi’an, doing a lot of alcohol importing into China. We invited him to Adelaide for the weekend and he was stunned by the beauty of the city, he was surprised to know of the importance of Adelaide and South Australia to Australia’s wine industry. These things seem axiomatic to us because we’re in amongst it but to Chinese people there isn’t that immediate understanding of Adelaide. Also, once you get people here and business people engaging in South Australia the surprise is that there isn’t an appreciation of Adelaide and the opportunity it presents.”
BP: Then conversely, what has the club learnt about its time in China; its people, its culture, even its business practices? And with that learning, what could be imparted back to the AFL, to Australian businesses?
AH: “We’ve been delighted at the speed of which the AFL has supported what we’re doing and through their leadership there is a real chance to internationalise the sport.
“It’s not a question of us teaching the AFL, but really partnering with them and going on this journey together. The internationalisation of the sport and certainly the China strategy wasn’t originally part of the AFL’s broader strategic plan. They were more interested in women’s football, but I would say the league has sensed a unique opportunity.
“What we learned from my perspective is a couple of things: Firstly, we went into this strategy knowing that intercultural and sensitive intercultural understanding will be the foundation to any success that we have. We didn’t want to develop transactional relationships and we didn’t want to go to China and be too cynical about being there for that commercial return and try to tap that commercial aspect directly or immediately. We’re there trying to engage with the view that we first wanted to understand more about China, more about culture and develop strong relationships.
“Secondly, anyone that is deeply engaged in China and has an understanding of their approach to international affairs and business culture, understands that they are long term thinkers. The Chinese for me are people who think in centuries whereas in Australia unfortunately there’s more of a tendency towards short term thinking. That’s reflected in our politics and some of our business approaches. In that sense, we have a lot to learn from China. That’s certainly been a real learning experience and to see that in action, see that come out in the thinking, the narrative and strategy of these companies with which we deal with.”
BP: We talk about intercultural relationships and ensuring that they’re not completely transactional. My question is, what is a misconception that Australians might have about conducting business in China? From my point of view a big misconception can be that judging the size of the market at face value and assuming that entering the Chinese market can be a guarantee of financial success.
AH: “I was once told that around 85 percent of foreign companies that enter the Chinese market leave having made a loss. It’s not an easy place in which to do business and it’s definitely not a guarantee of financial success.
“Australians and Chinese have world views that are framed in fundamentally different economic, political, linguistic, cultural, political contexts. Doing business with the other is not easy for either party. In Australia, we often tend to have a transactional approach to business. A recent Prime Minister stated his belief that if we have a product that we can sell to the other person which they have a need for then business will just naturally take place. Whereas in China is not quite like that – not in my experience at least. There is a fundamental need to build relationships and trust, and in some cases, to build genuine friendships.”
BP: I feel being humble is key. If you’re humble and you’re keen to learn more about their culture, surroundings or people, I think that also helps to meet each other evenly.
AH: “Exactly, and what we look at it is a genuine exchange of ideas where there is no party with the upper hand or a party coming in with a superior attitude. We’re looking to learn from China and from the people we’re dealing with and similarly we hope to teach them a little bit about Australian culture and practices.
“When you talk about these transactional relationships a part of the discursive problem that has been around in Australia for 10 years is a lot of our political leaders have been talking about China as, ‘this is where our future economic prosperity is going to be written.’ For me, that dehumanises. The approach could almost be described as parasitic. China isn’t just a market, it’s a country with a long history and a fascinating culture from which we can learn. It’s a place from which we can learn from, and a people with whom we can develop relationships, as well as seek an economic benefit. Port Adelaide is thinking in a very different way to the narrative and the discursive way in which our political leaders have explained the China opportunity.”
BP: Is there anyone in particular that’s within the AFL that’s backing the international strategy?
AH: “Gillon McLachlan (AFL CEO) has really driven the very recent movements in terms of AFLX and women’s football. I think his leadership will be crucial to this. He was very supportive of Port Adelaide going into China. Gillon is a visionary and like all leaders, knows how to seize a moment of opportunity. Also, new AFL Chairman Richard Goyder has genuine international experience and this could be something where he could play a very strong leadership role.”
BP: Now that we’re considering the exportation of the AFL, could AFLX be the more exportable game considering the infrastructure required to play that version?
AH: “My opinion yes. The aspiration of having a demonstration sport at a home Olympics is heightened because an Olympic sport has to be played by both men and women.
“Countries will actually see the opportunities in the women’s form of the sport and often see this as more of an opportunity than the men’s form of a particular sport. For example, China has invested in the development of women’s cricket, rather than men’s cricket. The concept is there, we have a modified version of the sport that takes less people and is less demanding in terms of the requirements for the grounds. And now we have an emerging women’s league and an accelerated strategy to increase the participation of women playing Australian Rules.”
BP: Despite Port Adelaide not having an AFLW team are there plans to play women’s matches in China? I ask this question as it is an additional avenue to exchanging ideas about women in sport or women in sports business in both countries.
AH: “We definitely have plans to be more involved in women’s football. We’ve mapped a path towards achieving that and we’re definitely not ignorant to the need to be involved in this really exciting evolution in women’s football.
“If you look at cricket in China, and believe it or not there is 80,000 cricketers in China at the moment, largely China has made the decision because it is an international sport that could have some relevance to the country. But it can be very hard to catch up even in our region with India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia and New Zealand in men’s cricket but because women’s cricket has evolved slightly later than men’s cricket they can accelerate efforts to become competitive quickly in women’s cricket and that’s what they’ve done.
“They’re putting a lot of resources into women’s cricket, similarly there could be opportunities to involve more women in Australian Rules football. We see chances in the future to play curtain raisers to our game in China. We’re coming at it with an idea in the future it could be a very complete package; helping the internationalisation of the sport and Port Adelaide will be at the forefront of that but as we move more strongly into women’s football there’s that opportunity as well to bring not just Australian Rules football to China but women’s football to China which is potentially an exciting proposition.”
BP: I think women playing AFLX is an interesting international opportunity. Rugby sevens is a very good example of internationalising a modified version of rugby union that works equally for men and women.
AH: “I think the women’s AFLX product could be the one that takes the world by storm.”
BP: With a long-term view, Port Adelaide’s plan is for this strategy to continue in perpetuity. This is certainly much longer than a five or ten-year plan.
AH: “I think we learn from the Chinese about long term thinking!
“We’re looking to talk about playing the game there for the foreseeable future. If Port Adelaide want to make this a core business for us going forward, and we’ve done so much hard work to develop those initial opportunities, we’re not looking at this as being a two or three-year play we believe that we will continue to expand our presence.”