Members of the Chinese national rugby team in a practice session at the China Agricultural University in Beijing. Fewer than 80,000 Chinese currently play rugby. Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee
Members of the Chinese national rugby team in a practice session at the China Agricultural University in Beijing. Fewer than 80,000 Chinese currently play rugby. Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee

China will get its first professional rugby union competition as part of a US$100 million investment in the currently low-profile sport by e-commerce giant Alibaba.

As well as professional men’s and women’s 15-a-side leagues, a national sevens program will be set up, Alibaba and World Rugby said in separate statements on Wednesday. The money will be spent over 10 years.

But rugby has heavy handicaps to overcome in the world’s most populous country.

Earlier this year, the Chinese government unveiled an ambitious blueprint to get 50 million children and adults playing football by the end of this decade, with the broader objective of becoming a world football superpower by 2050 and hosting the World Cup tournament.

Fewer than 80,000 Chinese play the sport and it is far less popular among spectators than football or basketball. Its Chinese name translates literally as “English-style olive ball”.

World Rugby, the sport’s international governing body, did not specify the size of the league, or when it would start.

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.

The two bodies plan to cultivate one million new players through school programs and train 30,000 coaches and 15,000 match officials in the next five years, according to the statements.

“We will work tirelessly to promote the development of rugby in China,” Zhang added.

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 US$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. But with a professional league, I can actually make it a profession without burdening my family too much.

“I really enjoy rugby, it brings me a joy that nothing else can.”

Strategic mission

But Xu Yaojun, president of amateur club Guangzhou Longhua, cautioned 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 said 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”.

Many firms in China are investing in sports, anticipating a massive growth in leisure industries as China’s economy rebalances toward consumption.

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.

The Hangzhou-based company is investing heavily in the sports industry and has a 38 percent stake in the reigning Chinese football champions, Guangzhou Evergrande.

Alisports has also signed deals to stream NFL American football in China and sponsor FIFA’s Club World Cup. It has partnerships with world amateur boxing body AIBA and basketball’s FIBA.