A few weeks ago at the Thai Polo and Equestrian Club in Pattaya, Thailand, an intriguing sporting event took place. Teams from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and the Philippines participated in a tournament of Australian rules football, a game that, as its name suggests, is indigenous to Australia and is played almost exclusively in the country. This was the 20th year that the Australian Football League (AFL) Asian Championship had taken place, and it was comprehensively won by PNG.
The annual tournament forms part of an increasingly well resourced push by the AFL — the premier professional league for the sport — to expand its reach outside of the country. Presently there are no professional competitions elsewhere in the world, but there is an increasing network of amateur competitions that tend to form wherever Australian expats find themselves (many of the teams playing in Thailand had a number of Australian players). Yet the AFL sees an opportunity to change this in Asia, hoping to create a solid base of local players who can develop the presence of the sport throughout the region, and expand its global reach.
It is a highly ambitious — and long term — vision, given that the vast majority of people either in Asia, or anywhere else in the world, have no knowledge of the sport whatsoever. But fans of the sport tend to be evangelical about it, and there’s a sense that missionary zeal will eventually overcome these obstacles and bring about global popularity.
This zeal is not without some merit. The AFL has the fourth highest annual attendance of any sporting competition in the world, and is easily the world’s most watched sporting league on a ratio of attendance to population (the game’s own attendance record is 121,696). This is made even more remarkable by the fact that the sport has only limited appeal in Australia’s first and third largest states (Australia’s primary cultural faultline — known as the Barassi Line — divides the country’s sporting allegiances). Yet in Melbourne, where the sport was born in 1859, it is by far the dominant social activity, and it binds the city across any and all backgrounds (Nine of the AFL’s 18 clubs are from Melbourne, a tenth is from Victoria’s second city, Geelong).
Transforming this kind of local devotion into an engaged interest in the sport across Asia is not going to be an easy task. Yet the AFL seems to have a well developed plan to try, seeing the key to growing the sport as one less of eyes on television screens and instead more of participation. The theory seems to be that if people are exposed to the sport then there needs to be an opportunity to play the game to capitalize on this exposure. In order to facilitate this, the league has been training and employing locally based coaches and development managers with the skills and knowledge to teach and evangelize the game at a grassroots level.
With these ambassadors in place, the AFL has made sure there is a steady stream of well-organized competitions for new players to participate in. And then following that initiation, making sure that the infrastructure is in place to create national teams, giving players a targeted ambition to aspire to. The opportunity to travel to Australia to play the game is especially attractive. Since 2002, every three years there has been an international tournament comprising of teams from throughout the world held in Australia (a world cup of sorts). The next tournament is scheduled to be held in 2020. PNG are, again, the reigning champions.
Alongside the AFL’s own attempt to develop the sport throughout Asia, professional clubs have also begun engaging in the region. Port Adelaide have their own highly developed China strategy, and for the past three years have played one of their “home” games in Shanghai. Although the crowds at these games seem mostly populated by Australian expats, the club has been able to use a presence in China to attract around $4 million in sponsorship revenue from Chinese companies. This engagement with China has also resulted in a deal with the state-run CCTV to broadcast the game into China.
The Australian government sees the public’s fondness for a wide range of sports as a significant asset for the country’s ability to engage globally. Canberra’s Sports Diplomacy Strategy 2030 identifies the global sporting engagement of Australians as a key component to “enhance Australia’s influence and reputation and advance [its] national interests.” As an indigenous sport (partially inspired by a game played by indigenous Australians), it is a unique cultural asset that the country has, and being able to popularize the sport throughout Asia would be an enormous soft power accomplishment and dividend for Australia.
Yet this will remain an incredibly difficult task. While the sport’s attempt to make inroads into New South Wales and Queensland (where rugby is dominant) has had some mild success, even within the same country — and an era of instantaneous global information — sporting allegiances can remain stubbornly tied to geography. The sport’s insular and cumbersome name of Australian rules football also works against it, giving it an air of Australian exclusivity that doesn’t invite global engagement (and lacking the directness of Basketball or Baseball). There is a creeping tendency to overcome this by shortening the sport simply to “AFL”, yet conflating the premier professional league with the sport itself is unhelpful to those who may love playing the game but may never reach its professional heights (there is a heroic Twitter account dedicated to weeding out this annoying conflation).
In focusing on Asia, the AFL has made a strategic calculation that — unlike Europe and North America — the region has the space to accommodate new sports and that Australian rules football has the allure to generate enough interest to become a viable fixture. If successful it would be an enormous boost to building greater understanding and trust throughout a region that Australia is still searching for ways to fully integrate itself into.