Touch­down China

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

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By ALYWIN CHEW in Shang­hai

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

PHO­TOS BY ALYWIN CHEW / CHINA DAILY

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.

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