Football frenzy is upon us, and this worldwide sport will be expanding with a new AFL league in China called the China Arena Football League (CAFL). The CAFL has recently partnered with Chinese online digital network iQIYI, which will be the exclusive provider of the league’s inaugural season. There will be two CAFL games played every Saturday and a third weekend game each Sunday. All games will be seen live exclusively on iQIYI.
AFL Global President David Niu (Niumataiwalu), born in Fiji and raised in Australia, has many responsibilities in the CAFL and for arena football development. He has an extensive background in rugby, where he was a player and official with the National Rugby League side St. George Illawarra Dragons. He recently answered questions about this historic CAFL start (October 1) that was three years in the making.
Congratulations on the beginning of CAFL this October as part of the AFL, created by Martin E. Judge (also CAFL Chairman/Founder). How does this addition expand your role as AFL Global President?[I took on] my role as President of AFL Global from the outset when we first started our effort in China. So, China is the first location as we work toward developing a global footprint for professional American Arena Football. Our plans call for expansion throughout Asia, Europe, the Americas and into the Pacific [region]. Leagues being played in countries within a region can then have separate team champions that could play off in a city-based “Champions League” similar to the soccer models leading to international competition (e.g. USA vs. China) and potentially an Arena League World Cup. So, in a brief snapshot, that is the vision for AFL Global.
The CAFL is China’s first professional league of American-style football. What special moments did you have with players (who did or did not make the team) during recruitment?
I would say that all the moments around the development of the players (those who made it and those who missed out) have been special. I was a player once, so I am very familiar of the highs and lows of being an athlete. Given that fact, I feel very connected to the process of player development, education, and evaluation. The efforts and sacrifices they make to take a shot at being a professional athlete are not easy, so we wanted to make the playing field level, for all athletes in both China and overseas who wanted to try and make one of our teams.
In China, we had players travel thousands of miles by all manner of means of transport to get to one of the combines. That tells me that what we are doing is meaningful, and that young Chinese have aspirations just like ourselves to be the best they can be at their chosen craft.
What were some skills of players from rural areas as compared to players from large cities and urban areas? What are some special stories you encountered about their backgrounds, occupations, and lives?
For the Chinese, the skill sets are mostly related to body type and a degree of familiarity from the sports they came from. Which in effect dictated what potential role they could fill on a team roster. I don’t think the rural vs. urban background becomes a factor. It is more: players who play with their hands above their head and can leap and jump; basketballers who could play receiver or tight end. Well, there’s plenty of them in China. Players who can kick a ball between a target – soccer, place kickers in football. Big strong powerful guys who are involved in martial arts or combat sports, wrestling, rugby, a lineman in football.
What special moments have you enjoyed with your coaches and supporting staff so far?
There have been many. When you are in a foreign country, with a challenging language barrier, and many cultural nuances that are unique, you tend to gravitate [to] and rely on those nearest to you – in our case, our staff. The greatest compliment I could pay to them is their ability to overcome obstacles and challenges, and find a way to get to the result we needed to maintain our operational plan. So to answer your question it is on a daily basis that I am thankful for the work our guys do and the entity they have created to get us to the doorstep of history: pro football kicking off in China.
From your perspective, what are some differences and similarities between the CAFL and the National Football League (NFL)?
The obvious difference is that we are inside and they are outside. Beyond that, it is football. Growing football is the key. Our success is their success. We benefit from all that they do to position the game of American Football on the scale that it is, the biggest sports property in the USA, if not the world, in terms of a single league business. We believe we have the ideal vehicle and league model/plan to grow the game of American Football globally, just like Rugby 7s has for the growing interest in the sport of rugby around the world.
The CAFL season begins this October. What delayed changed the beginning from the original September 2015 start date?
October is a better start date in China and for foreign players to be available out of their regular season. September is training camp for our teams. The connection to the Philadelphia Soul [AFL team] has been very helpful from the ownership, coaches and players whom are involved now in our China league. It always helps to have personnel that are playing at the highest level in our sport involved in our business and lending their experience and expertise to the challenges we face.
How has your Pennsylvania connection and collaboration with the Philadelphia Soul helped this new CAFL league develop? Please describe your work with partners and former Philadelphia Eagles Ron Jaworksi (also part-owner of the Philadelphia Soul) and Dick Vermeil.
Ron and Dick are football ambassadors. They love football. All football. So having them within our company is fantastic. Their expertise and knowledge is not just limited to the football operations. They are successful businessmen who help guide our efforts off the field also.
The league has an impressive six-team base (Beijing, Qingdao, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Dalian and Guangzhou) near large populations and colleges. Will the league continue to expand with college partnerships?
Our plan going forward is to develop and focus on our professional team operations in each of those locations. The responsibility for local market growth, community outreach, and player/team development will live at that team level under the direction and guidance of the league. It is good business to foster the grassroots programs within your city and region, so all of those initiatives will be driven by the team.
Please describe your collaboration with CAFL VP of League Development and former Buffalo Bills players Ed Wang, who is based in Beijing.
First and foremost, Ed is proud of his Chinese heritage and more so his family. That is very evident in his actions and passion regarding our league and business in China. We are very fortunate to have him as part of our team. Ed is a gentleman and our bridge to understanding China present and China past.
Please describe how the college atmosphere influenced the league, coaches and players.
Our college presence gives us an insight to what young Chinese people are thinking, and doing. How they want to be entertained and inspired. You will see through the presentation of our Pro League that we have watched, listened and learned from them.
Each team has some Chinese players and some coming from North America and Europe (Germany, Italy, and Spain). How has this cultural mix influenced team play as well as individual players?
Our team rosters will be split 50% Chinese and 50% foreign. That is by design. We wanted and needed a balance of talented and experienced foreign professionals to help foster the development of our Chinese players. Sports has no color or cultural barriers. So we expect there to be a unique style of football that reflects many of these diverse backgrounds and personalities.
Will there be future teams in Chongqing, Chengdu, Harbin, Wuhan and/or Xi’an?
Yes. Expansion is part of our short and long-term plan. We would like to grow into some of the college cities we are present in, along with other major tier-1 cities in China.
Will you play in/host international games? Do you think there will be a women’s CAFL?
Once we have established our league in China, all things are possible from International competition, as mentioned, as in USA vs. China. And a woman’s league? Why not?
Thanks very much.