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Going for the touchdown
2015-05-15, LIONEL DONOVAN

The World of Chinese

The United States loves American football. It is the country’s number one sport in popularity and attendance.

College football is a rite on Saturdays in the autumn. The championship of the professional National Football League (NFL), the Super Bowl, is among the most-watched sporting events globally.

This makes the sport a financial powerhouse, with the NFL bringing in around $10 billion a year. Despite all of this, American football mostly has not spread much beyond North America.

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 North China’s Heibei province, captain of the Beijing Cyclones team and a fan of Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh Steelers player who retired in April. Liu discovered the sport in Singapore and has loved it ever since.

“I first saw a US football game when I was in college in Singapore. It was a Super Bowl game, I think. I couldn’t understand the game then. I could see the hits — it was very powerful, very amazing.

“I started looking on the Internet. Once I understood the rules, I felt like this game was so amazing. When I came back to China, I learned how to coach. 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 a Detroit Lions fan, originally went to China to study Chinese culture, but found himself sharing a bit of his own.

“When I came to China, I met a group of about 10 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.”

There are two types of football — arena and outdoor — and China has both: AFLC for outdoor and the newer China American Football League (CAFL) for arena.

China has always seemed to be open to sports from all over the world. But the only such sports to have gotten real traction are soccer and basketball.

McLaurin knows all about the challenges of bringing US football to China. 

“Basketball has been in China much longer than football has 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 (National Basketball Association) since Michael Jordan, and Yao Ming, of course, and football doesn’t have that.”

However, the problems are not insurmountable. Not long ago, according to CSM Kantar Research, the Super Bowl had 14 million fans in China, growing from only 1 million in 2010. 

The NFL has been trying to capitalize on potential consumers, including bringing the likes of Barry Sanders, Tony Dorsett, Kordell Stewart and Joe Montana to hobnob with Chinese fans. 

It has also invested in an NFL on Tour truck to cruise Chinese cities, complete with a fold-out, big-screen TV as part of the “mobile audio-visual NFL experience”.

Another hurdle is not just the sport itself, but rather the culture that comes with it. US football is heavily ingrained in American culture. So, will that translate to China?

“I think community is so much more important in football than it is in basketball,” McLaurin says. “Our guys come back because they love their friends, they love the community they’ve built up.”

The man behind this gridiron push in China for the CAFL is Martin Judge, founder, chairman and CEO of AFL Global. He is also part owner of the US-based professional football team Philadelphia Soul. 

Judge also has some A-list help, including Wu Hua, a journalist and president of Ganlan Media International; former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski (veteran of the Chiefs, Dolphins, Eagles and Rams football teams), and former coach Dick Vermeil, who led the Rams to a Super Bowl ring in 1999.

As much as Liu loves the sport, he also knows that football culture will not be as easy to introduce. With basketball, you do not need pads or a helmet. In China, people like heroes, Liu says. 

“You can see how many basketball fans like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, but it’s just the NBA stars; they don’t like the teams they play on.”

But there is potential for both Chinese and foreign talent in the Chinese leagues. The CAFL’s arena football league is just getting off the ground, but players in countries are already looking at China as a viable option. 

The Sydney Morning Herald reported in December that foreign players could make as much as 5,000 Australian dollars ($3,925) a game if drafted to one of the eight Chinese teams.

The AFLC is more of a homegrown brand and boasts the more popular outdoor football the world is used to seeing in the Super Bowl. There are articles on its website explaining to newcomers exactly how football works.

For the players in the AFLC, the game’s full contact can be an issue. McLaurin knows about the roughness that comes with gridiron, but he thinks it benefits the players.

Liu also knows that not everyone is built like him, and some players have other opinions. 

“Chinese parents don’t want to see their children get injured. And when the players get married, the wife doesn’t like to see her husband get injured. Some very good players have stopped playing because of the way their family feels.”

Still, American football in China is growing. Liu, however, knows that to take it to the next level, he will need some help. 

“In China, sports depend on the government, you know? So once the government says, ‘OK, this sport is good, we will develop this sport in China,’ it will be much easier for the sport to develop in the country.”

There is another reason for having American football take off in China. It may seem a little silly now, but ping-pong diplomacy (乒乓外交) four decades ago improved US-China relations. 

American football can perhaps, on a much smaller scale, do the same. Teams are made up of both American and Chinese players, according to Judge, who told The New York Times that it would be “divided evenly between American and Chinese players”.

Although some may see this as just another sport, McLaurin and Liu see a bigger cultural question. 

“Football is like a tool for education ... because football relies more on teamwork. It helps kids build character; it makes them tougher, mentally and physically,” Liu says.

McLaurin says: “There’s no better way than American football to instill the core values of teamwork, hard work, perseverance, discipline — all these things that are crucial for China at this point in its development, especially with so many kids who are being spoiled and not being given holistic training for their life trajectory.

“They’re studying for tests all day; it’s purely academic. Football really allows you to be a leader in a way that you need to be in, say, business, that you can’t get from studying for a test. It’s not about creating the next accountant; it’s about creating the next CEO.”

 

Courtesy of The World of Chinese, www.theworldofchinese.com


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