While many Chinese are still apprehensive about trying out a sport that they consider too violent and foreign, amateur American football teams have intriguingly been sprouting up across the country
While many Chinese are still wary of trying a sport considered violent and foreign, amateur American football teams have been sprouting up across the country.
As the confetti and streamers shot up in the air, tears of jubilation rolled down the cheeks of the players from Shanghai Warriors.
To Owen Yan, the team’s 6-foot-3 defensive end, the triumph over local rivals Shanghai Nighthawks in the American Football League of China (AFLC) Championships on January 16 this year was redemption three years in the waiting.
“We were the favorites to win the very first season but the Chongqing Dockers narrowly beat us in the championship game. We’ve waited a long time for this,” said Yan, one of the Warriors’ co-founders.
“But that’s football — it’s like life. There are times when you win and times when you lose. It’s about accepting failure and learning how to stand again when you’re down.”
Though there was a gamut of emotions on the field, this was hardly an event that could be mentioned in the same breath as the Super Bowl. After all, there were only 4,000 people in attendance at Shanghai’s Yuanshen Sports Centre Stadium.
Taking a step back, one would however realize that this was merely an amateur league championship for American football. In China, no less.
Of all the events that China had medaled in at this year’s Olympics in Brazil, only volleyball and synchronized swimming could be considered team sports.
Yan, a 32-year-old pharmaceutical sales professional from Chengdu, Sichuan province, needs to pay an annual team membership fee of about 1,000 yuan ($149.76). When he travels to other Chinese cities for competition, the cost of train tickets and motel stays is his to bear.
The Shanghai Warriors only has one sponsor at the moment — a sports bar in Shanghai called Big Bamboo that’s better known for its nachos than endorsements.
And then there’s the fact that the crowd attendance at the inaugural 2013-2014 championships was a dismal 100 people.
On the ground, this year’s turnout has been heralded as an achievement that is nothing short of phenomenal.
Spicy origins in China
The roots of the AFLC, the first amateur league for the sport in China, could be traced back to 2012 in Chongqing where Chris McLaurin began his foray into the world of American football in China.
McLaurin, one of the AFLC’s cofounders and a former tight end for the Michigan Wolverines, was first introduced to the Chongqing Dockers, a group of local football enthusiasts, by the liaison from the State-owned private equity firm he worked at as part of his Luce Scholarship exchange program.
“No one had equipment back then. They were just practicing their throws, learning how to line up and get into stance. It was all fundamental stuff,” said McLaurin.
“After practice they would hit the hot pot joints. I still remember going to practice after a night of eating hotpot and losing guys to the bathroom.”
But things got serious soon after McLaurin joined. After a few months, the American was appointed head coach of the team. He even went on a recruitment drive in shopping malls dressed in football gear.
By November 2012, the Chongqing Dockers were playing proper football, even beating the Hong Kong Warhawks 32-0. A month later, the Dockers played the Chengdu Mustangs and won again.
But McLaurin was not content. He opened his phone book and called up several contacts he knew were playing American football in China and arranged for a get-together in Shanghai during the summer of 2013.
As it turned out, everyone was keen on playing in a league. McLaurin and James Fitzgerald, another American who was coaching the Dockers, then started creating rule books and draft schedules. In October that year, the inaugural AFLC season kicked off with eight teams.
McLaurin went back to the United States in 2014 and later became the commissioner of the AFLC. He is currently based in Shanghai as the CEO of the American Football Association, a new company established this year which is backed by an American investor.
Potential of the Chinese market
The fourth and latest AFLC season (2016-2017) which kicked off on August 27 features 14 teams and the biggest representation in Chinese mainland comes from Shanghai which has three outfits.
The Nighthawks, Warriors and Titans have always been known to be hard to beat, mainly because of their local-foreigner ratio, a result of the city’s cosmopolitan nature. To level the playing field, the AFLC has mandated that only five foreigners per team are allowed on the field at any point in time.
Yan wasn’t shy to admit that part of the reason his side managed to win the championship was due to the slight edge they have in terms of experience, provided by their foreign players which make up half of the 60-strong team.
Membership numbers across most teams in the league have risen considerably since the first AFLC season. Yan said this is due to a rapidly rising interest in the sport, thanks to the country’s economic progress.
“Now that China is wealthy, more people are interested in experiencing all sorts of arts and cultural activities. It’s the same for sports,” said Yan.
Other factors that have played a part include the central government’s efforts to promote sports as an integral part of modern lifestyle, as well as the promotional efforts of NFL China, the Chinese arm of the American football governing body.
According to NFL China, the Chinese fan base for the sport had soared by more than 400 percent since it entered the country in 2007. Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, was quoted earlier this year saying that the average views for the Super Bowl in China over the past five years have been around 12 million.
The organization also flies big names into China such as NFL legends Joe Montana and Barry Sanders. If everything goes according to plan, the NFL could be hosting its first ever regular season game in China in 2018.
Mark Dreyer, the founder of China Sports Insider, said that it is very unlikely the NFL will ever become as popular as the NBA, though he does believe that American football can nonetheless garner a significant fan base in the coming years.
“It will be very interesting to see how the long-rumored first game in China will be received by sports fans here. The NFL has targeted only a handful of countries outside the US rather than going for growth all around the world, and this should allow them to localize the product better for China,” said Dreyer.
Changing misconceptions at the grassroots level
When asked about the biggest challenge facing the growth of American football in China, almost everyone cited the misconception that the sport is violent.
“Many locals still see American football as a violent sport. And besides, in China, most people don’t play team or contact sports. They do love playing basketball, which is a contact sport, but even then I feel there is still very little contact. The locals prefer to shoot than make a run to the basket,” said Tim Gomez, a physical education teacher at Shanghai High School who plays quarterback for the Warriors.
“That’s why it’s important that we start with the kids and help them get the foundations right so they don’t injure themselves. If you get the kids to love football, they’re going to teach their kids how to play football and the cycle goes on.”
NFL China has been playing a pivotal role in raising awareness about the sport through its annual NFL Home Field event that comprises football clinics, competitions and performances for people of all ages. It had also held a NFL Play 60 clinic for children on the pitch ahead of last season’s AFLC championship game.
Zach Brown, who coaches and plays for the Shanghai Warriors, lauded the support that NFL China has been providing to the AFLC.
“For the past three seasons we’ve played games at NFL Home Field and it is a great platform to promote our team, our league and the game. A lot of the content that NFL China produces is also very beneficial in raising awareness,” said the American.
Brown has been doing his part as well, albeit on a more diplomatic level.
Together with McLaurin, the two Americans had in 2014 set up the Gridiron Leaders Foundation (GLF) which aims to regularly select former US college football players to undergo a 9-month cultural exchange program that will see them work at a company in China and coach a local football team.
The first batch of three fellows arrived in China last year. Among them were Vladimir Emilien, a former safety at Michigan University who helped coach the Beijing Iron Brothers in the AFLC.
Brown said that as former student athletes, he and McLaurin know just how hard it is for those who play football in college to experience other things in life.
“In the US, it’s a full-time commitment to be a student athlete. There is little to no chance for these individuals to study or have an internship abroad. We started the GLF to provide such opportunities for people to become global citizens and gain awareness of the world beyond the US,” said Brown, a former defensive end for the Arizona State Sun Devils.
“On the other hand, these Americans can help the local football community raise their standards. Getting to learn from experienced players is certainly better than watching videos on Youku. It’s a win-win situation.”
Making touchdowns everywhere
The American football scene in China, however, is not just limited to the AFLC.
Formed by a group of teams that were previously from the AFLC, the CityBowl Alliance debuted last year with 12 teams. The new season, which kicked off earlier this year, features 20 teams.
Yan hinted that it was a fractious relationship between some of the AFLC teams and those that founded CityBowl Alliance, such as the Beijing Cyclones, that led to the split.
“There was once an altercation between the players of the Beijing Cyclones and a team from Hong Kong. Even the police got involved. I feel that the Cyclones have a wrong concept of football — they want to win and can’t accept defeat. Personally, I think they set up this new league just to feel good about themselves,” added Yan.
Wen Xiaowei, the secretary-general of CityBowl Alliance, said it was down to a difference in opinions that led to the split.
“I wouldn’t say that we fell out with the members of the AFLC — we just didn’t share the same opinion on how things should be done. At the end of the day, both these leagues just want to promote American football in China,” said Wen.
This October, an indoor football league will also kick off in China. Dubbed as China’s first professional American football competition, the CAFL (China Arena Football League) will feature six teams comprising local players who have been training for the faster-paced arena format at their respective universities in China.
American football, it seems, is no longer just an American sport.
But that's football — it’s like life. There are times when you win and times when you lose. It’s about accepting failure and learning how to stand again when you’re down.” Owen Yan, one of the Shanghai Warriors' co-founders
American football players from the Shanghai Warriors practice scrimmaging.
The Shanghai Warriors are the latest champions of the AFLC, the first amateur league for American football in China.