The US loves American football. I mean, really loves it. It’s the country’s number one sport in terms of popularity and attendance. More people go to NFL football games in the US than any other sporting event in the world, and the championship game, the Super Bowl, ranks among the most-watched sporting events globally. This makes the sport—known in some countries as gridiron football to distinguish it from soccer—a financial powerhouse, with the NFL bringing in around ten billion USD a year. Despite all of this, in the bigger picture, American football has stayed pretty resolutely grounded to North America. But that isn’t to say other countries haven’t been getting in the game. A handful of other countries are showing interest, with teams and leagues popping up all over the world—including China.
Leading the charge is Shawn Liu from Hebei Province, captain and safety of the Beijing Cyclones football team and a devoted Troy Polamalu fan. Shawn found the sport in Singapore and has been in love with it ever since. “I first saw a US football game was when I was in college; I went to college in Singapore, so it was a Super Bowl game, I think. Everybody was crowded around watching the TV. It was Chinese New Year. I couldn’t understand the game then, but I knew it was interesting. I could see the hits—it was very powerful, very amazing.”
Afterwards, Shawn left the game with an itch he couldn’t scratch, and he started to do some research into the sport. “I started looking on the internet, and I searched for the rules, and I started to watch the game. Once I understood the rules, I felt like this game was so amazing! I started to study football, and when I came back to China, I learned how to coach football players, because I used to run track when I was in college…I’d study the plays and the strategies, and then I started a team.”
Chris McLaurin, commissioner of the American Football League of China (AFLC) and an avid Detroit Lions fan, originally came to China to study Chinese culture, but once his football past came out, he found himself sharing a bit of his own. “When I came to China, I met a group of guys, about ten or 15 guys in Chongqing, who were really interested in learning from me about how to play football. So I worked with them over the course of a year to help found the first football team in Chongqing. We moved from 15 guys to 25 guys to 35 guys, now we have about 65 players on the roster. So there’s a genuine interest in the game in China.”
The Chongqing Dockers hit the field for a championship game
When you talk American football overseas, it’s important to note that there are two types of football to be discussed—arena and outdoor, and China has both brands in the form of the AFLC for outdoor football and the burgeoning China American Football League (CAFL) for arena. In October of 2014, the CAFL sponsored the first intercollegiate Chinese football playoffs, and it is certainly garnering a fan base. Over 3,000 people attended the championship game (admittedly a far cry from US numbers in the sport) in which the Shanghai Nighthawks won the day. The AFLC also celebrated their championship game in early 2014, with the Chongqing Dockers winning 24 – 16 over the Shanghai Warriors. However, the full development of this sport means players and a culture of playing, something other US sports seem to have done extremely well.
China has always seemed to be open to sporting events from all over the world, and has teams playing everything from cricket to sepak takraw (somewhat like a lovechild of soccer and volleyball which is positively amazing). But, as far as bringing sports to the Chinese public, the only ones to have gotten real traction are soccer and basketball. Chris knows all about the challenges of bringing US football to China, noting how it won’t be as easy as another one of US’s favorite sports: basketball. “Basketball’s been in China much longer than football’s ever been recognized here. So it’s a longer curve…People know how to play basketball, they know who’s good, they’ve known the NBA since Michael Jordan, and Yao Ming of course, and football doesn’t have that.”
Chris goes on to say that watching the game isn’t enough to get everything down. It’s something that has to be experienced. “Football has a complex set of rules, a lot of rules, a lot of positions, and a lot of moving parts. So the best way to teach China football is by putting a football in their hands.”
The problems in this area aren’t insurmountable. Not long ago, the internationally (at least by Americans abroad) beloved Super Bowl, according to CSM Kantar Research, already had 14 million fans in China, representing growth from only one million in 2010. The NFL in the US is all-too aware of this following and has been making attempts at capitalizing on potential consumers, including bringing the likes of Barry Sanders, Tony Dorsett, Kordell Stewart, and Joe Montana to hobnob with Chinese fans over the past few years. They’ve also invested in an NFL on Tour semi-truck to cruise the cities of China, complete with a fold-out, big-screen TV in what they dub the “mobile audio/visual NFL experience”. In 2014, the truck made appearances in Hangzhou, Tianjin, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, Shanghai, Changsha, and Guangzhou. The battle for fans in China is on.
Another hurdle for bringing US football to the Middle Kingdom isn’t just the sport itself, but rather the culture that comes with it. US football is heavily ingrained in American culture, which is the main reason behind its success. So, the question is, will that translate to China? Chris seems to think so and believes that there are a lot of aspects about football that could be useful to China’s youth. “I think community is so much more important in football than it is in basketball. Our guys come back because they love their friends, they love the community they’ve built up. They get together, they all play football together, and that, I think, is something that is very unique in China—to bond with so many different people on an athletic field.”
The man behind this push for the gridiron in China via the CAFL is Martin Judge, founder, chairman and CEO of AFL Global and part-owner of the Philadelphia Soul. He’s also got some A-list help on both sides of the pond, including journalist and president of Ganlan Media International Wu Hua, former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski (veteran of the Chiefs, Dolphins, Eagles, and Rams), and former coach Dick Vermeil, who led the Rams to a Super Bowl ring in 1999. He has big plans for the sport, saying in a China Daily interview, “I even have my own stamp in China…I’m not happy with that. I want a statue.” He also told Forbes, “It’s possible that someday the CAFL could be bigger in China than the NFL is [in the US]…With the backing of the Chinese government, the sky is the limit for how we can grow American football in the vast, untapped Chinese marketplace.”
Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of this feature.