On a recent Saturday, China’s first professional American football league held tryouts in Shanghai to draft players for its inaugural season. Some 80 hopefuls turned up, showing off their 40-yard dashes, shuttles, and three-point drills at the rainy Luwan Stadium.
Billy Lai, an offensive lineman from Hong Kong, dreams of being drafted, and made the trip up for the weekend. He had celebrated his 25th birthday two days prior, but the gym instructor didn’t take any chances – no alcohol, and only a light dinner – before traveling to Shanghai for the trial.
Never mind that, unlike his American counterparts, Lai didn’t start playing until he finished high school. Forget that his amateur team, the Warhawks, only trains three hours a week, or that he largely learns through online videos. Lai thinks he has what it takes to become a pro.
“Sometimes it’s all about the attitude. It’s like, how bad do you want it?” he said.
The inauguration of the China Arena Football League (CAFL), conceived by American investors, comes on the back of the NFL’s March announcement that it hopes to play its first regular-season game in the country in 2018. Alongside entrepreneurs in everything from soccer to mixed martial arts, these executives hope they can tap into one of the world’s most fertile grounds for commercial sports.
China is not recognized for its American football prowess, and inquiries about “olive ball,” as the game is known in Chinese, will likely be met with puzzled glances. But these foreign investors aren’t introducing the sport to the country. Instead, they’re tapping into a thriving subculture, where squads of dedicated men and women obsess over teams such as the Beijing Iron Brothers, the Chongqing Dockers, or the Chengdu Pandamen, all in the amateur American Football League of China (AFLC.)
Lai wasn’t inspired to play American football by mega-rich, super-model-marrying stars such as Tom Brady. Rather, it was a dorky high schooler from Japan who got him interested: Sena Kobayakawa, the fictional protagonist of the Japanese comic series Eyeshield 21. After discovering his incredible speed, the struggling local football team coerces Kobayakawa into joining, and he is transformed into a star running back.
The series was an inspiration to many of the Warhawks’ players, according to Christopher Yuan, the team manager. But the popularity of Eyeshield 21 created a headache for the more experienced coaches, many of whom studied in the United States.
“In the comic book, it shows them how to do arm tackles,” said Yuan, who discovered football while at UC Berkeley. “But in football, you never do arm tackles, because if you arm tackle, they just run through you.”
Tasked with bringing sponsorship to their team, Yuan is skeptical about the benefits that the commercialization of American football and the NFL will bring to Hong Kong, a smaller market for professional franchises.
Mainland football players, however, are more excited. Ivan Yuan, the 24-year-old quarterback of the Chengdu Pandamen, thinks the NFL will help raise the profile of the game and the AFLC. He said it will show the public that American football is not, as is commonly believed, about fighting.
“It’s a symbol of the beginning in Chinese football,” said the quarterback, who was first exposed to the sport online as a child. “The fans, the normal people, they can know what football really looks like.”
American football in China has been growing fast. Five years ago, there were only three teams, mainly organized by foreigners, according to Zach Brown, coach of the Shanghai Warriors and a former player at Arizona State University. Now there are 16 teams in the AFLC, approaching its fourth season, and 20 in the City Bowl, another amateur league. The teams have also successfully built up large majorities of Chinese players, many of whom speak of being attracted by the friendship and camaraderie, in contrast to more popular individual sports like badminton and ping pong.
“The Apaches are my second family in Guangzhou,” said Zoe Leung, the 27-year-old team manager of the Guangzhou Apaches, and one of two girls among more than 80 members. “Sometimes they make jokes about me, but I don’t care.”
Football is not the first “American” sport to have taken on a life of its own in China. Both baseball and basketball have histories in the country that long predate the expansion of the American franchises, the MLB and NBA. Wherever they go, said George Gmelch, an anthropologist at the University of San Francisco, “these sports are transformed to fit the local culture.” Baseball never took off in China, while basketball, played throughout the wars, famines, and revolutions of the 20th century, was ubiquitous long before the NBA arrived in the 1990s.
Today, China has become the world’s second largest market for sporting goods, and, with 300 million fans, basketball is its most popular spectator sport, according to EMLYON Business School’s 2015 Sporting Goods Industry Report.
“American sports brands salivate at the chance to credibly penetrate the Chinese market,” said David Carter, director of USC’s Sports Business Institute.
Question marks hang over American football’s prospects in China, however. The lack of green space in large cities, a government that prioritizes Olympic sports, and distaste toward football’s perceived violence all mean promoters may find it hard to take the sport mainstream.
“Too many Chinese people think football is aggressive and dangerous, for kids and adults,” said Yi Jiandong, director of Peking University’s Business School of Sport. While it is getting more popular among people familiar with American culture, Yi doesn’t see football spreading much further. “Just a few people understand and accept American football in China, compared with basketball, swimming, track and field.”
Lai, of the Warhawks, wasn’t happy with his performance at the CAFL tryouts; the rain threw him off, and he sprained his ankle. While excited about football’s potential in China, he is concerned that local players will be pushed out by Americans. But, even if he doesn’t make the draft this time, he is determined to try again next year.
“Football is kind of like life,” said Owen Yan, a Chinese defensive end with the Shanghai Warriors, last year’s AFLC champions, who also tried out for the CAFL. “You’ll get your ass kicked but you got to get up and keep going. Sometimes going is pretty hard, yard by yard, but if you keep fighting, you’ll get it.”
Benjamin Parkin is a master’s student at Columbia University Journalism School. Matthew Sedacca and Jamie Martines also contributed reporting to this article.