Is China ready for football?

Updated: 2014-09-09 10:51

By Jack Freifelder in New York(China Daily USA)

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China is definitely not a market that most sports fans would associate with American football, but a dedicated group of US businessmen are trying to change that perception by helping bring a professional indoor football league to China.

"There's a lot to be said when it comes to bringing the game of football to China," Marty Judge, part owner of the Arena Football League's (AFL) Philadelphia Soul, said in a telephone interview with China Daily on Friday. "I've been there since 2008 and what I've heard is the outdoor sports are not as well taken as the indoor sports."

"In talking to a lot of people in government they felt the same way," he continued. "That's why the government embraced indoor football when I came over and presented the idea."

 Is China ready for football?

Players from the Arena Football League (AFL) take part in an exhibition game in Beijing in November 2013. A group of entrepreneurs is securing investors for an indoor football league to kick off in China in the fall of 2015. Provided To China Daily

Judge, the founder of the Judge Group Inc, a global professional services firm based in the Philadelphia area, has partnered with former National Football League (NFL) quarterback Ron Jaworski and Super Bowl-winning coach Dick Vermeil, among others, to help bring football to fans in China.

The China American Football League (CAFL), which has preliminary plans for six to eight teams scattered across several major Chinese cities, will kick off in September 2015.

Each team will have a roster of 20 players, including 12 Chinese and eight Americans, and many of the participants, as well as coaches, will come directly from the Arena Football League.

Potential investors can scoop up a franchise for $10 million, which also gives the team's owner the rights to receive a portion of the CAFL's TV-licensing revenues.

Ron Jaworski, a football analyst with ESPN, who is also a part owner of the AFL's Philadelphia Soul, said although there's no guarantee of success in China, he "strongly believes American football will meet the insatiable sports demand from the growing Chinese consumer base".

"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," Jaworski said in an August interview with Bloomberg News.

An agreement between Ganlan Media International (GMI), a Beijing-based global sport marketing company, and the Chinese Rugby Football Association announced the news on Aug 14.

Judge, who created GMI in 2010 and serves as its CEO, said developments to bring indoor football to China have been in the works for several years. He also said the prevalence of arenas in China makes it a good candidate for the indoor version of football.

While football's huge potential in China remains largely untapped, Richard Young, the managing director of the NFL's office in China, said increasing Chinese interest in American football could take time.

"We've seen a real groundswell of interest in American football here in China," Young said. "The most important element of the NFL is the fan base, and China is where future fans are. But it's a very difficult market and it takes a lot of long-term planning."

The NFL, which has had an office in China since 2007, has seen its fan base grow more than eightfold in the last four years (1.6 million in 2010 to 14 million in 2014), according to data from NFL China.

Though China's collective penchant for Western sports is growing, Young said the CAFL's leadership group should realize that bringing American football to China is "not a zero-sum game".

"Their success will be dependent on our success, and our successes will help each other," Young said. "Though the NFL is not involved with the CAFL in any way, we know that it takes time to build up interest and you need to have a long-term horizon [in China]. And having a successful indoor football league in China is extremely helpful to the game for all growth aspects, no question."

(China Daily USA 09/09/2014 page2)