The slow drive downfield
“Ready, set, hike” are three distinctive play calls exclusive to the game of American football that have been echoing loudly throughout countless fields in China. The great American pastime has been gaining meaningful traction over the last few years, which is proven by visits from renowned pro-level star players like Payton Manning and Byron Chamberlin from the Denver Broncos to the land of the Great Wall. Even the National Football League (NFL), the leading authority in the game, is turning its eyes to one of the largest retail markets in the world.
With the creation of several clubs and leagues like the China Arena Football League (CAFL), American Football League of China (AFLC), City Bowl and AFU Limited, it certainly seems like American football is making headway. Nevertheless, “the drive downfield,” is ever slow. Though at the time of their launch enthusiasts and fans were overwhelmed and hyped, all of these American football entities fell short in one way or another. The CAFL was canceled for the second year in a row due to lack of investment. The AFLC rounds up teams from all over China and though recognized by the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), they have no endorsement, government aid or meaningful sponsorship since football isn’t an Olympic sport. The City Bowl has been even less successful; its players are actually required to “pay to play,” and the AFU Limited, with its university teams, is a failing collage sports model – the athletic development, the grit and the competitive spirit all need to be honed for years before ever stepping into that level of expected play and performance. Quite simply, American football’s unique set of values and training philosophy are unlike many trends brought over from Western culture – it cannot be nationalized in China.
It is a process that requires engagement at an early age and time to develop, which leads to another dilemma – time. It is an asset Chinese youth don’t really have due to their astoundingly busy schedules set up by demanding Chinese parents who push and possibly overstep for excellence from children who are as young as 6 or 7 years old. China dominates international standardized tests, and by extensively preparing its youth for the gaokao, it sacrifices physical education and sports development.
The success of American football in China rests greatly on whether or not time can be set aside for the sport to be practiced at an early age where harnessing the basic fundamentals is just that – fun. The thrill of catching and throwing the football, running around chasing someone and falling down and getting back up must all be implanted at an early age.
American football in China at its highest level may not entirely depend on high-level-players nor magnate investors, but rather the young. There are now pioneering sports schools in China like the Great Stone Gridiron. Schools like these grasp that concept and follow the good old Western formula behind the sport – having fun. Children from ages 3 to 12 who participate in sports schools practice all the fundamentals of American football by simply learning to first have fun. Schools like these and the participation and dedication of parents and students are really what’s keeping the “drive downfield” alive.
Will American football continue to thrive here in the Middle Kingdom? That may well depend on just how much time we allow the youth to learn how to have fun as they practice the fundamentals of the game.
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