Despite their reputations as sports-obsessed nations, sporting links between Australia and China remain insignificant. But these links are growing on the back of government support, corporate sponsorship and grassroots initiatives.
Australian and Chinese firms are starting to embrace bilateral sports sponsorship to help establish brand presence and social capital in each other’s countries; examples include Australian firm ANZ and Chinese firms China Southern Airlines, Haier, Changhong Electric, Datong and Huawei [topic page link].
Soccer, tennis, basketball and swimming are all sports with significant participation and followings in both Australia and China. In soccer, Australia and China compete together in the Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers, and the Australian star Tim Cahill signed with Shanghai Shenhua FC for the 2015 Chinese Super League season. In tennis, Tennis Australia has marketed the Australian Open as the ‘Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific’ since 2003, conducts trophy tours through China and set up a program for Chinese ball kids. Australia and China will play each other in basketball twenty-four times over four years under an agreement signed in 2013. And, in swimming, Australian coaches have enjoyed high-profile success training China’s Olympic gold medal-winning swimmers.
Despite enthusiastic expatriate clubs in large Chinese cities, most major Australian sports — Australian rules football (AFL), cricket and rugby — are barely known, let alone played, in China. Nevertheless, with potential broadcast exposure and new sponsorship opportunities providing incentives, the governing boards of these sports and some clubs have attempted to make inroads into the Chinese market.
Though AFL remains extremely marginal in China, the Australian Football League has staged an exhibition match, built pitches, opened a development academy, sponsored the South China AFL competition and supported the Chinese national team. In Australia, the AFL has hired Chinese-language commentators and community ambassadors, and AFL clubs such as GWS Giants, Melbourne and Port Adelaide have developed China strategies aimed at attracting Chinese supporters living in Australia and enticing sponsors and broadcasters in China to consider investing in them. Regarding cricket, China aims to qualify a team for the 2019 World Cup, and Cricket NSW has sponsored Chinese players to train with Australian clubs. Rugby enjoys a slightly higher profile in China due to its popularity within the Chinese military and the inclusion of Rugby Sevens in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. The Australian Rugby Union has encouraged this relationship by playing Test matches in Hong Kong, but plans for National Rugby League matches in China have repeatedly fallen through for lack of financial backing.
Neither are many of China’s most popular grassroots sports popular in Australia. Badminton, table tennis and martial arts are all common, but Australian athletes are not competitive on the world stage, and there is insufficient participation or grassroots interest to attract significant government backing or corporate investment.
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