China to join pro foot­ball wars

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By WIL­LIAM HEN­NELLY in New York wil­iamhen­nelly@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Maybe some­day they’ll talk about a cham­pi­onship game on the frozen tun­dra of Bird’s Nest field. But for now, pro­fes­sional foot­ball in China will be played in­doors.

On Septem­ber 18, 2015, the China Amer­i­can Foot­ball League (CAFL) will kick off with eight teams on the main­land. The CAFL is af­fil­i­ated with the Arena Foot­ball League (AFL), the pur­veyor of eight-men-a-side in­door foot­ball in the United States.

The new league is owned by business ex­ec­u­tive Martin Judge, founder, chair­man and CEO of AFL Global and part owner of the AFL’s Philadel­phia Soul. He is also the founder of the Judge Group, a pro­fes­sional ser­vices staffing company spe­cial­iz­ing in IT, based in West Con­shohocken, Penn­syl­va­nia. The company also has a sub­sidiary in China.

Judge’s part­ners are Wu Hua, a jour­nal­ist in China and pres­i­dent of Gan­lan Me­dia In­ter­na­tional (49 per­cent owned by AFL Global; Gan­lan comes from the Chi­nese phrase gan­lan qiu, or Amer­i­can foot­ball); and Ron Ja­worski, for­mer NFL quar­ter­back and cur­rent ESPN foot­ball an­a­lyst. Ja­worski is a majority owner of the Philadel­phia Soul. Dick Ver­meil, a Su­per Bowl-win­ning coach and a long­time friend of Judge’s, is help­ing pro­mote the league.

Judge is ebullient when talk­ing about his role as the fa­ther of Amer­i­can foot­ball in China. His bravado on the tele­phone and his ap­pear­ances in videos are rem­i­nis­cent of the late Oak­land Raiders owner Al Davis.

“I even have my own stamp in China,” Judge said in a tele­phone in­ter­view with China Daily. “I’m not happy with that. I want a statue.”

A fran­chise in the CAFL will go for $10 mil­lion the first year, $20 mil­lion in the sec­ond, said Judge, who is con­fi­dent the fran­chises will rise in value an­nu­ally.

“We have 12 peo­ple who want them now,” he said. “Soc­cer fran­chises sell for $200 mil­lion to $400 mil­lion in China. There is no [Amer­i­can] foot­ball in China. Only us.”

Judge wouldn’t re­veal who the po­ten­tial own­ers are, but he said four will prob­a­bly come from the US and four from China.

“San Francisco is like Asia,” he said, hint­ing as to where the Amer­i­can own­ers could come from. “I’m talk­ing to all the own­ers in the NBA.”

Judge not only has brought pro foot­ball to China, he spon­sored the first Chi­nese col­lege foot­ball play­offs ear­lier this month. Six teams vied for the ti­tle.

Shan­dong Sport Univer­sity de­feated He­bei In­sti­tute of Phys­i­cal Ed­u­ca­tion, 46-42, on Oct 18 at the Chaoyang Sports Cen­ter in Beijing. The col­le­giate event gave play­ers a chance to showcase their skills ahead of the CAFL draft next spring. Ath­letes will be el­i­gi­ble for the AFL upon grad­u­a­tion.

“We just had the first ever, ever, ever in­ter­col­le­giate foot­ball games that six univer­si­ties played against each other,” Judge said. “They never played against each other in any sports. The last game had an “all-out brawl, a bench-clear­ing brawl. It’s just like the United States.”

The col­lege games iron­i­cally were played out­side, but un­der arena foot­ball rules. So why the switch to in­doors for the pro league?

“The air pol­lu­tion in China is bad,” Judge said. “They re­ally don’t want to be out­doors. They love in­door sports: ten­nis, ping pong, bad­minton. There are 17 ci­ties big­ger than New York City in China, and ev­ery one of them has an arena!”

The 20-man teams are ex­pected to be split evenly be­tween Chi­nese and Amer­i­can play­ers. The Amer­i­can play­ers will come from the Arena Foot­ball League in the US. The Chi­nese play­ers will likely come from the col­lege teams.

The av­er­age AFL player makes $832 a game in the US, but in China, play­ers will be paid as much as $5,000 a game, “which is more money than they would ever make as a col­lege grad­u­ate in China,” Judge said.

The AFL sea­son in the US runs from March to Au­gust, so the sched­ules won’t con­flict.

For­eign­ers work­ing with the AFL are learn­ing that Chi­nese men have the right foot­ball at­tributes.

“They’re big and strong,” Judge said. “They have big peo­ple and they can play foot­ball. They are com­pet­i­tive; they’re de­ter­mined.” In the col­lege cham­pi­onship, “the score changed 11 times. The boys on the los­ing team

We just had the first ever, ever, ever in­ter­col­le­giate foot­ball games that six univer­si­ties played against each other. They never played against each other in any sports. The last game had an “all-out brawl, a bench-clear­ing brawl. It’s just like the United States.” MARTIN JUDGE FOUNDER, CHAIR­MAN AND CEO OF AFL GLOBAL AND PART OWNER OF THE AFL’S PHILADEL­PHIA SOUL

were all cry­ing,” he said.

Some­times, the play­ers re­act as if they’re play­ing a dif­fer­ent sport.

“They’re from a rugby world,” Judge said. “When that ball is dropped (on an in­com­plete pass), they still dive for it.”

David Niu, the pres­i­dent of AFL Global and a for­mer Aus­tralian rugby player, also is op­ti­mistic about Chi­nese foot­ball play­ers.

“They’re quick. They are big­ger than I thought they would be in terms of size and bulk. Fairly siz­able col­lege play­ers crossed over from bas­ket­ball, rugby, wrestling, track and field.”

The CAFL also has hired for­mer NFL player Ed Wang to work on player de­vel­op­ment in China.

Wang (6-5, 315) was a four-year starter at of­fen­sive tackle for Vir­ginia Tech and the first Chi­nese-Amer­i­can player drafted by the NFL. Wang’s par­ents were track-and-field ath­letes on China’s 1984 Olympic team.

“Ed Wang is my Yao Ming,” Judge said.

e league’s tim­ing could be for­tu­itous, as in­ter­est in Amer­i­can foot­ball in China is surg­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to CAFL and Na­tional Foot­ball League (NFL) data, the num­ber of ur­ban Chi­nese ages 15-54 who con­sider them­selves fans of Amer­i­can foot­ball grew from 1.6 mil­lion in 2010 to 14.1 mil­lion in 2013, or 462%.

“It is an ex­cit­ing time for the sport in China,” Richard Young, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Shang­hai-based NFL China, said in an email to China Daily.

TV view­er­ship of NFL games in China (not count­ing the Su­per Bowl) went from 5.3 mil­lion in 2008 to 70 mil­lion in 2013, a gain of 1,320 per­cent. The TV au­di­ence is pro­jected to grow to 166 mil­lion by 2022. China’s ex­ten­sive tele­vi­sion and so­cial me­dia net­works also help drive in­ter­est.

The new league is not with­out grow­ing pains.

“The lan­guage dif­fer­ence is tough, es­pe­cially with the ref­er­ees,” Judge said. “I have all Amer­i­can ref­er­ees. Prob­a­bly our big­gest chal­lenge is go­ing to be the ref­er­ees. We have a lot of train­ing to do.”

The CAFL hopes to have 14 teams in two con­fer­ences by 2016. After a 10-game reg­u­lar sea­son and play­offs, the ad­vanc­ing teams will play in the CAFL Arena Bowl on Dec 11, 2015.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

The Tian­jin Pi­rates face the Wuhan Nine-Headed Birds dur­ing the first China Amer­i­can Foot­ball League (CAFL) Univer­sity Cham­pi­onships at the Chaoyang Sports Cen­ter in Beijing ear­lier this month. The col­lege games were used as a showcase for the nascent CAFL — the first Amer­i­can-style foot­ball pro­fes­sional league in China — which kicks off its in­au­gu­ral sea­son in Septem­ber 2015. The CAFL will be an in­door league fea­tur­ing Chi­nese play­ers and Amer­i­can play­ers and rules from the Arena Foot­ball League in the United States.

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