Professional rugby coming to China
World Rugby has announced that China will get its first professional rugby union league as part of a $100 million investment by e-commerce giant Alibaba.
As well as professional men's and women's 15-a-side leagues, a national sevens programme will also be set up, the two said in separate statements. The money will be spent over 10 years.
Can 'English-style olive ball' become a success?
However, rugby has a number of significant handicaps to overcome in the world's most populous country. Fewer than 80,000 Chinese play the sport and it is far less popular among spectators than football or basketball. There’s also the image: the game’s Chinese name translates literally as 'English-style olive ball.’
World Rugby, the sport's international governing body, would not specify the size of the league or when it would start but the chief executive of Alibaba's sporting arm Alisports, Zhang Dazhong, said the game had 'undoubted potential' to become a 'mass-participation sport' in China.
A million new players, 30,000 coaches and 15,00 officials
The two bodies plan to develop one million new players through school programs and train 30,000 coaches and 15,000 match officials over the next five years. “We will work tirelessly to promote the development of rugby in China,” said Zhang.
China's national rugby captain Ma Chong welcomed the investment. “As an athlete, I finally see hope for this sport,” he said. Ma, 24, makes just over 3,000 yuan (less than $500) a month playing for the Shandong provincial side.
“To be honest, until now I haven't thought that I could support my family playing rugby” he said. “But with a professional league, I can actually make it into a profession without burdening my family too much. I really enjoy rugby, it brings me a joy that nothing else can.”
Funding won't be enough, say rugby figures
But Xu Yaojun, president of amateur club Guangzhou Longhua, urged caution, saying that funding was not enough to guarantee success.
“This investment is definitely good news,” he said. “But money is only part of what is needed to develop the game, the whole social system in China, including the education system, all needs to be involved. We need patience in this.”
The announcement comes after Alibaba unveiled a tie-up with World Rugby to increase the game's visibility through its internet video platforms in April, when World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper announced that China has ambitions to host the Rugby World Cup.
Gosper said in a statement on Wednesday that World Rugby's 'strategic mission is to grow the global rugby family. China is central to that mission.'
A growing profile in Spain
Rugby has increased its profile in Asia thanks to its inclusion in this year's Olympics and the upcoming 2019 World Cup in Japan, as well as the growing world sevens series.
Alibaba has obtained the 2016-2017 broadcasting rights to show international matches including the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship and Europe's Six Nations on its online video platform.
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