Plans for China to get its first professional rugby competition as part of an ambitious $100 million investment have stalled, Alisports said Sunday.
The bold proposals for rugby, currently a low-profile sport in China, were announced nearly two years ago by Alisports — the sports arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba — and World Rugby.
They included professional men’s and women’s 15-a-side leagues as well as a national sevens programme, with the money to be spent over a period of 10 years, the two sides said in October 2016.
But Alisports CEO and founder Zhang Dazhong played down expectations in an interview with AFP Sunday, saying it was “too early” to talk about such high levels of investment in the professional game.
“There isn’t much progress on that right now,” Zhang said.
“First we want to cultivate the popularity of rugby in China so we will start with that first, and then once we’ve started then we will think about the goals, like this $100m promise.
“We will start with campus rugby first… We will not be involved with any club, federations or national level regarding the sport.”
Rugby is striving to make inroads into Asia, with high hopes for next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan which will be the first held in the continent.
The inclusion of rugby sevens in the Olympics and Asian Games has boosted its profile.
Participation in Asia almost doubled between 2009 and 2017 to more than 500,000 players, according to the sport’s governing body.
But 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”.