By Zhu Wenqian
Alisports and World Rugby, the global governing body of the sport, announced an agreement on Sunday at the annual Hong Kong Sevens, a premier seven-a-side tournament.
No financial terms were revealed, but Alisports said it will make a long-term investment and pump in millions of dollars to make the game popular in China.
Under the agreement, Alisports hopes to develop 1 million rugby players in China in the next 10 years and raise the profile of the sport in the country. Besides, it will host more international rugby events.
"We encourage young people to join rugby, a sport that cultivates teamwork and strong will. We hope that more Chinese sports fans, especially kids, will love this aggressive sport and explore their own values through teamwork. We wish to promote the growth of rugby sport in China at all levels," said Zhang Dazhong, chief executive of Alisports.
Rugby is at its initial stages of development in the Chinese mainland and has a much lower profile compared with other sports. Currently, China has 1,337 registered rugby players, according to the latest statistics of the Chinese Rugby Football Association.
Meanwhile, only seven cities in the Chinese mainland are holding rugby events, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Yantai. Most of those who are involved are professional players from sports schools.
Bernard Lapasset, chairman of World Rugby, said: "This deal will ensure an unprecedented platform for rugby to reach, engage and inspire new participants across China."
Lapasset said he believes that the joint work will bring new progress to the sport. Rugby now has nearly 8 million people engaged in the sport globally. He said he believes that one day, there will be a lot of Chinese people playing rugby.
This is Alibaba founder Jack Ma's latest investment in the sports industry. Ma, China's second-richest man with a fortune estimated at $22.7 billion, according to the annual Hurun report, recently made an investment in the booming Chinese football market.
Alisports will introduce rugby events, develop more competitions and broadcast games from World Rugby on its media platforms, including Youku Tudou Inc. Besides, Alisports will help World Rugby promote the development and sales of official derivative products, with the e-commerce advantages of its parent company.
Zhang Zhiqiang, a former captain of the Chinese men's national rugby team and currently a physical education teacher at China Agriculture University, said: "English rugby has been developed in China for 26 years, but the sport only grows within a small circle. It has not been well-combined with society and business operations."
"The growth of rugby suffered a setback in China due to a lack of high-level coaches, referees and imperfect management mechanisms. The new cooperation between Alisports and World Rugby is definitely good news for the further development of rugby sport."