Football gains yardage in China

Updated: 2016-09-29 07:00

By Alywin Chew in Shanghai(China Daily)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small

American football is breaking its national boundaries to win over millions of fans in a country not known for its prowess in team sports

As NFL superstar Peyton Manning emerged from behind a black screen on an auditorium stage, hundreds of fans dressed in American football attire and brandishing an assortment of paraphernalia went wild with raucous cheers and deafening applause.

While this would not be an unusual scene in the United States, this particular event took place last Sunday in Metro City, a shopping mall in Shanghai's Xuhui district. Furthermore, the majority of those in attendance at this one-hour fan forum were Chinese.

"Oh my God, this is a dream come true for me. I've always dreamt of meeting you in person, Mr Manning," exclaimed a Chinese woman who was bouncing in excitement after getting chosen to ask the NFL legend a question.

She made the most of the opportunity and quickly fired off two questions. Minutes later, another Chinese fan got to do the same. The man, speaking in barely coherent English, committed a faux pas and asked three questions.

But Manning, renowned for his goody-two-shoes persona, obliged, despite looking jet-lagged.

Widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, Manning is currently on a tour of China to promote both the league and the sport. The 40-year-old later travelled to Beijing to attend another fan forum as well as participate in an American football clinic for local players on Wednesday.

Growing fan base

The NFL has, since the establishment of its China office in October 2007, been attempting to cultivate in the locals a love for the typically American sport through a series of football clinics and promotional events.

To reach out to its Chinese audience, the NFL has secured the rights to have its games shown by eight regional TV broadcasters and online broadcasters such as Tencent Sports, Sina Sports, PPTV and iQiyi.

Apart from Manning, the NFL has also flown stars such as Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Barry Sanders and LaDainian Tomlinson into China to promote the sport.

Manning, who retired earlier this year after helping the Denver Broncos win Super Bowl 50, told China Daily that the NFL "is certainly growing right" in China with its initiatives and hinted that the plan to hold a regular season game in the country is still in the pipeline.

"Getting more people to play (American football) would be a great way to grow the game. It has to start at the grassroots level and not just at the professional level," said Manning.

"There's interest in having an NFL game here in China and I think that's a great step in growing the sport here," he added.

According to media reports, the NFL is now aiming to hold a season opener game in China come 2018. The organization won't have to worry about what kind of reception the event will get this time: It claims that its China fan base has seen a staggering 1187 percent increase from 1.6 million fans in 2010 to 19 million in 2015.

The sport has also taken off at the grassroots level. There are currently two domestic amateur leagues - the American Football League of China (AFLC) and the CityBowl Alliance - in the country, with a third, the China Arena Football League (CAFL) scheduled to kick off in October.

Upping the ante

But it seems the NFL isn't about to rest on its laurels.

On July 22, it kicked off its seven-week NFL Super Bowl Truck Tour across China to promote both the sport and the league to the Chinese. The tour also featured a partnership with Gatorade, launching the brand's "One Pass to Fame" program that gave fans an opportunity to win tickets to the NFL International Series Game between the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars at London's Wembley Stadium, as well as a trip to Super Bowl 51 in Houston next year.

The NFL also said that its latest flag football tournaments in 14 cities across China have seen a 130 percent increase in participation from last season. In addition, the NFL said that its grassroots initiatives have resulted in the establishment of more than 50 local adult teams, 15 university teams, and 10 youth programs.

"We are coming off of our strongest season ever and the buzz around the new season is amazing. The sport of American football and the NFL are both really gaining ground in the sporting landscape of China," said Richard Young, vice president and managing director of NFL China.

There is, however, still room for growth, if social media numbers are anything to go by.

In contrast to the NBA, which is without doubt the most popular foreign sporting organization in China with a massive Weibo following of more than 32 million, the NFL has just 463,000 followers on the same platform.

Many players in the domestic leagues say there is still an overriding perception that the sport is crude and overly aggressive. Naturally, parents have been apprehensive about letting their only child - China's one-child policy was only lifted on Jan 1 this year - get into the sport.

"Parents should indeed be asking the right kinds of questions about the equipment and coaching that takes place in American Football. And the NFL is doing the right things to ensure that children are being taught the proper techniques," said Manning.

"American football is certainly a physical game, but it is also a safe one when it's played the proper way. It can teach children so many lessons ... such as working with teammates and being accountable for your actions. It's extremely unpredictable who's going to win any game and that's what makes this sport so exciting."

 Football gains yardage in China

As NFL's latest Global Ambassador, retired superstar Peyton Manning makes his first trip to China this week, visiting Shanghai and Beijing while fans of American football throng to have a face-to-face meeting with their idol. Provided To China Daily