American football is coming to China next year with its first professional league.
Marty Judge, part owner of the Arena Football League’s Philadelphia Soul and founder of the Judge Group Inc., a $350 million information technology staffing, training and consulting company based outside Philadelphia, partnered with former National Football League quarterback Ron Jaworski and Super Bowl-winning coach Dick Vermeil to bring American football to the world’s most populous country, trying to build a fan base in a nation of 1.4 billion people.
“The AFL is not as successful in the U.S. as the NFL is, but indoor football and arena football is just going to take China by storm,” Judge, 70, said in a telephone interview.
The China American Football League will kick off its professional season in September 2015 -- a month after the AFL season ends in the U.S. -- and will have six to eight teams based in major cities in China. Franchises will be sold for $10 million apiece, which also gives owners a portion of the television licensing rights. Rosters will be composed of 12 Chinese players and eight Americans, many of them from the Arena League, and coaches also will come from the AFL.
“This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring our great sport to China, and to do it with the cooperation of the Chinese government,” said Jaworski, who spent 10 of his 15 NFL seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and is now a football analyst with ESPN. “I strongly believe American football will meet the insatiable sports demand from the Chinese growing consumer base, especially among the younger people.”
In addition to a championship game, played at the home stadium of the team with the league’s best record, the CAFL plans to have an All-Star game after the season in Macau.
While the fledgling league has a large potential fan base in China, it also has an uphill climb. American football just makes the top 20 of China’s most popular sports, according to CSM Media Research, ranking far behind Olympic events such as ping pong, gymnastics, swimming and badminton.
Growing interest in American football has been a gradual process, said Richard Young, the managing director of the NFL’s office in China.
“I’ve been based out in Asia for over 20 years and I’ve seen a lot of people rush in, look at China as the new big thing and expect returns to come quickly,” Young said by phone from Beijing. “That’s a very difficult thing, in any industry, but especially in sports. It’s a bit different over here. You don’t have the media base from which to draw revenues because television is state-controlled.”
The NFL has had an office in China since 2007, the same year it started playing annual regular-season games in London. While the league has also held exhibition games in Canada, Germany, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Ireland and Australia since 1990, there still hasn’t been an NFL game in China.
The NFL for six years has run a league of 36 flag football teams at Chinese universities, and the final game this year attracted more than 13,000 fans. Young said the NFL’s fan base in China is 14 million, up from 1.6 million four years ago, and this year the league will debut the NFL Truck, an 18-wheeler that will visit 13 Chinese cities for football events.
“Why we’re in China is because the most valuable aspect of the NFL is its fan base and this is where the people are,” Young said. “This is where you can get fragments that are large enough to sustain a business. We’re looking at this 400 percent growth that we’ve seen for the foreseeable future. It’s a long-term plan to grow steadily and strongly.”
Judge, who opened sports marketing company Ganlan Media International in Beijing in 2010, said he sees indoor football as a perfect fit for China, even more so than the NFL, which is the most popular sports league in the U.S.
“China is more geared to Arena football because they don’t have the stadiums built,” Judge said. He spent three years working with China’s government and the Chinese Rugby Football Association to form a league set to debut in 2015.Judge said. “They have arenas in every major city and there’s 20 cities bigger than New York that already have government-owned arenas built.”
The Chinese Football Rugby Association said in a news release that indoor football best suits the nation’s fan base because of its faster pace, higher scoring and “close-to-the-fans” entertainment. Indoor games are played on a 50-yard (46-meter) field, as opposed to the NFL’s 100 yards.
The first professional game was played Nov. 13 in Beijing between a pair of AFL All-Star teams and Judge said it was well received by Chinese fans.
“They saw it, they loved it,” said Judge, who has set up indoor tackle football teams at six universities that will play against each other the rest of this year. Judge, who estimates he’s spent about $10 million to create the CAFL, is paying for their equipment and coaching.
Judge said he hopes to grow the CAFL to as many as 30 teams throughout China and eventually expand into South Korea and other Asian countries.
While Judge says “the sky is the limit” for indoor football in China, the NFL will continue its slower approach.
“I hope they have a great future because it helps football,” NFL China’s Young said. “It’s a rising tide that will raise all the boats. As long as they’re playing it safely, we certainly welcome everybody. We’ve been here the longest, by far, and we’re developing slowly but surely.”