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Volume 7 No. 130
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Hangin' With ... Arena Football League Global President David Niu

Former National Rugby League side St. George Illawarra Dragons player and official DAVID NIU has championed the growth of rugby teams and leagues in the U.S. since his retirement from the game, but is now helping grow American Arena Football around the world as the president of Arena Football League Global. Founded by MARTY JUDGE and backed by former NFL head coach DICK VERMEIL and former NFL player RON JAWORSKI, AFL Global is kicking off its inaugural China Arena Football League season this October. Niu's experience growing rugby in the U.S. has significantly helped AFL Global tackle many of the same roadblocks American football found in getting started in China. Niu spoke to SBD Global about the building blocks of the CAFL and AFL Global's plans to expand throughout the world.  

On getting involved with AFL Global ...
David Niu: Four years ago I joined forces with Marty Judge, Ron Jaworski and Dick Vermeil and the team of part owners of the [AFL team] Philadelphia Soul to work out a plan and process, which is a big plan and vision, to take arena-style football to China. We have plans to expand, over the next couple years, into South Korea, Vietnam, Japan and into India and build that Asian footprint. The general position from my side of the business is to build it such that we build by region and by territories … and create a regional competition following the rugby and soccer models, so we can have a city-based championship where we have the top teams from China play the top teams from Japan, etc. So we can have a Champions League, and ultimately an international competition where we would see China play against Japan and Japan play against the USA, so that there is a global footprint of the game.

On AFL Global’s affiliation with the AFL ...
Niu: We are a separate entity. Most of the guys that own our company own a team in the AFL. We have heard interest in either acquiring or cooperating with the league here as we expand our business. In ’13 we did an All Star game where we took the best players here from the AFL to deliver a sample of what the highest-end football would look like in China. So we took 40 players from the U.S. and hosted the game in Beijing and had 10,000 fans show up and live television with Beijing TV and BTV Sports that produced the content online. So we have already held an All Star game there and shown the players that we have been working on a six-team university league for the past three years. We played our university championship last November, and we had 5,000 fans attend that game. So the response from in-stadium audiences has been good. The response from commercial drivers around the property, as far as sponsors and television, has been significant as well.

On the importance of the first season’s success ... 
Niu: It is very important for us to establish this first season. We have created a footprint and model that gives us a footprint in each of those [future] countries. So if you look at this first season, the Super Series, we take ownership of all six teams and we fund and manage and run the whole league. We run in a style where we go from city to city in a giant infomercial football festival where all six teams play in the city location over a period of six stops. That gives us a chance to create brand equity and a market share and develop the commercial operations around it. And then we can actually sell off the assets: investment into the league property or ownership of teams. And we can translate that model over time into other locations. So our goal, which we are currently working on, is as the Super Series season launches we will sell off those teams, and by year two we could look at being six teams again or be eight or 10 teams with all private ownership.

On potential investors ...
Niu: That is why we are in those six cities; that is why we selected them. Over the past four years, the most significant interest in team ownership has been in those cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dalian and Qingdao. With the shift in the China sports industry, and the large players over there that have already bought Chinese basketball teams and soccer teams, it’s the same audience we are looking at. And also, we’ve had significant interest from existing team owners and operators from professional sports here in the USA who would like an asset in China.

On how AFL Global got set up in China ...
Niu: We’ve learned a lot from the existing sports culture and landscape in China. Most of those teams have come from state-owned enterprises, so they have been government-owned and operated. Over time they have transitioned to private ownership. But we have the ability to start exclusively as the only privately-owned sports league in China. We have approval and support of the Chinese government and the Chinese Sports Ministry, but we are 100% wholly-owned by our own company and our own investors. Marty Judge has a staffing and IT company, The Judge Group, in the U.S. and in China, and that is what took him to China originally. So he already had established partnerships and relationships in the both the private sector and in the government sector. And from his understanding and knowledge, he saw that the only way to get things done in China is to have the support and the approval of various government agencies. He took a really good look at the sports industry there and saw there was reform and changes taking place. For example, China has been really competitive in international events such as the Olympics, but in sports like soccer and basketball they have suffered. So from the government’s perspective, they thought, ‘Here is a model that is very successful around the world in terms of the NBA, and other soccer leagues like the EPL. What are they doing that is not happening in China? They are privately owned. They are governed and managed by the private sector.’ When it got to us, we were at the right place at the right time.

On injuries keeping players away ...
Niu: I’ve been familiar with those concerns, coming from the sport of rugby. In the U.S., people’s first impression is: ‘Well that’s not really safe.’ But when you actually educate people, around best practices and the introduction of the right tackle technique, it can be safe. We are fortunate, based on what has been happening with concussions and football injuries, we’re able to take it from a different place and start from a real safe perspective of taking the head out of the tackle. We’ve been utilizing the coaching techniques that are prevalent now and embedding them as opposed to some of the ingrained old football mentality of leading with your head. We’ve been able to address that issue, and we’ve been able to identify, within our college programs, the success of those techniques and the minimization of injuries to our college level players.

On NFL involvement ...
Niu: We’ve met with the NFL in the course of the past month, based on the fact that they have an interest in playing a regular season game in China. The fact that we’ve been there for four years, they want to understand what we’ve done and how we have accomplished what we have. And they have their own operation there with NFL China, which has been there for about 10-15 years and has been doing outdoor flag football camps. So from their standpoint, football is football, and it’s the same for us. You know, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ So for us, what the NFL does in China, through grassroots programs and flag football or the introduction of live content from the U.S. to China to a large audience really benefits us. So we look forward to continuing to collaborate and cooperate with the NFL.

On CAFL’s revenue model ...
Niu: It’s pretty similar across the board with other sports leagues. That’s our goal, to build a model such that we will generate significant broadcast media revenue. Sponsorships we already have in place at the moment include Spalding, Xenith, Legend Sportswear, Donjoy and SISU Mouth Guards. All are significant and relevant revenue drivers, which is not really that different to how the NFL or all the major sports in the U.S. are run. We just have to try to work through the scale where we are at the moment and build that business model over time.

The CAFL inaugural season starts in October.
On the obstacles of growing globally ...
Niu: It’s a new sport in a new landscape, with a foreign culture and a foreign language barrier. So those obstacles are obvious, they make for difficulties in terms of translation of information so that can often slow the process. The fact that it is such a wide and large audience base of 1.4 billion people, it’s easy to say, 'Let’s go into China, there’s all these people. And as soon as we play the game they’re going to like it.' But it was an effort and a process over time. The three E’s that we’ve driven with our company are: Education, engagement and then enterprise. The first step was education. We had to be able to show these people what the game is and what the rules are, because if people don’t understand it they tend to not participate or enjoy it. So that was significant time and effort. And then it was engagement, once we did the first step we had to actually get people to play the game. So there was an investment there in time and resources of suiting people up, providing kids, providing the field system, being able to provide match officials and developing those guys and coaching up the coaches. Now, in year four, we’re at the enterprise phase where we’ve done the hard work and heavy lifting, and now we want to present the program and sell assets and investments in interest into that program.

On the value of existing facilities ...
Niu: Infrastructure was something that helped in China. We play the game indoors, so we didn’t have to make any investment in facilities because they already exist, with large, high-profile, high-end stadiums in the major cities, and smaller intimate venues in the smaller cities. So facilities were available to us, which was helpful, with anywhere from eight to 10 to 15 and all the way up to 20,000-seater stadiums, so that’s important that we had somewhere to play and drive our business within those facilities.

Hangin' With runs each Friday in SBD Global.