Arena Football League set to touch down in China
Philadelphia • The AFL is set to go long really long and touch down in China.
The Arena Football League is taking expansion to a global level with plans to export their 50-yard fields and high-scoring offenses to Asia.
Are you ready for some "Mei shi gan lan qiu!?"
That's the loose translation of "football" in Chinese and Philadelphia Soul ownership, led by former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski, believed the time was right to give the world's most populous country an untraditional taste of a very American game.
"It's an untapped market," Jaworski said. "They get our (NFL) games. They get Arena games. The Chinese people love sports."
In America, the AFL is a niche sport long in the shadow of the NFL that's been around in some form for the last 26 years.
In China, the AFL could grow into the next big thing in a mostly barren sports landscape where fans are more engrossed in chess, cricket or table tennis than stick-and-ball sports. The next step comes next week when the AFL holds coach/referee camps at six sports universities around China: Beijing Sports University, Tianjin University of Sport, Hebei Institute of Physical Education, Wuhan Institute of Physical Education, Shandong Sport University, and Xi'an Physical Education University.
China is set to get a crash-course in Xs and Os in a league that should be up and running in about 18 months. Soul co-owner Martin Judge leaves Friday as part of a group that will include league commissioner Jerry Kurz to oversee the training camps that will be held May 27-31.
"If anyone watched the Olympics and watched the Chinese athletes, they realized how competitive they were and the quality of athletes that they have," Jaworski said. "They are picking up football already rather quickly."
The AFL website said the trainers will include five U.S.-based former Arena Football League players, including Darren Kenny, Darreck Branch, Cecil Doggette, Steve Videtech and longtime referee Jim Lapetine. Lou Tilley, president of Lou Tilley Media, will host interactive sessions and present a special 10-part video series "Introduction to American Football: A Coach's Guide" along with some bilingual reinforcement materials.
Tilley narrates AFL China videos found on YouTube that offer the kind of breakdowns that wouldn't be heard out of Jim Harbaugh or Tom Coughlin.
"One team, the offense, has the ball and wants to move the ball forward to score," Tilley said. "The other team, the defense, wants to stop that from happening and wants to take the ball away."
He adds: "It's simple. Simple and tough. American professional football. Coming soon to China!"
Hey, learning to blitz must be easier than scaling the Great Wall.
The league plans to play an exhibition game in October in Hawaii and then two more preseason games later that month in Beijing and Shanghai. The AFL expects a six-team league to debut in September or October 2014. The schedule length 10 games was suggested and franchise sites are to be determined.
The league will start as a mix of American and Chinese players. Judge said he hoped the league would be compromised of predominantly Chinese players by the time it's expected to expand to 12 teams in 2016.
"China's ready for football," Judge said. "They want Arena football. They want more excitement. The stadiums are already built in every major city. They'll sit 10,000 people which is perfect for Arena football."
Judge is working on finding a TV deal in China to air the games. He wants an AFL China vs. AFL United States version of ArenaBowl in Hawaii and expects the league to eventually expand into other parts of Asia.
Soul general manager Tom Goodhines visited Beijing and said he met people who had a strong appetite for professional football.
"Why not bring football there," he asked. "I think we're taking the right approach and doing it the right way."
Judge and Jaworski hatched the idea over beers a couple of years ago. Judge had expanded his technology consulting firm into China in 2008 and used some contacts to bring the idea of launching the AFL to the right people.
Judge said he owns the AFL China league (known there as Ganlan Media International) and is bankrolling the venture out of pocket. He said he's meeting with Steve Forbes to discuss additional financing. The Soul ownership group has already made a $20 million investment for equipment and other expenses.
Jaworski led a group last August that gained approval from the Chinese government to bring the league overseas and introduce competitive football to about 1.4 billion people.
"The commissioner of sport reaches out to me and shakes my hand," Jaworski said. "I looked at my interpreter and said, 'Does that mean we've got the deal?' The handshake is good over in China, too."
The AFL has gone deeper in its football relationship with China than the NFL. The league has never played even a preseason game in China even though it's maintained an office in Shanghai for years.
"I believe in five to 10 years, through our organization, I think we can bring the NFL over there," Judge said. "Roger Goodell is watching what we're doing. He talks to Ron Jaworski pretty much every month. He's supporting us."