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Pigskin Diplomacy: American Football Kicks Off in China

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by Lincoln Lin
The Chongqing Dockers play the Shanghai Warriors in the first AFLC championship game. Image: Xin Yuan, CQ Dockers

On August 14th, the third season of China’s first full-contact American football league will begin with kickoffs in four major cities: Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. The American Football League of China (AFLC) was started in 2013 by a pair of American students, Chris McLaurin, a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and James Fitzgerald, a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies. Despite doubts about whether American football could make it in China, in the last three years the amateur football network has grown from just six teams to over thirty between the AFLC and its sister-conference, the City League. Participation in the AFLC is over 80% Chinese, with players ranging in age from 18 to 42.

“It was a truly remarkable and gratifying experience to be involved in the teaching, playing, and in the end, celebrating the final victory of the first football championship team in China,” Fitzgerland told Asia Matters for America. In bringing experienced coaches from the US to teach and train local Chinese teams, the AFLC is growing American football from the grassroots, demonstrating what Fitzgerald calls the “power of sports diplomacy.”

The league has gained attention in the media and was featured in an article in The New Republic entitled “The Year of the Pigskin,” which chronicles the struggle of the Chongqing Dockers to win the championship over a stronger and more experienced team. The story of the Chongqing Dockers even caught the eye of an executive from Sony Pictures in Los Angeles who visited China and may adapt the story into a major motion picture.

The AFLC is not the only organization currently promoting American football in China. Based in Philadelphia, The American Football League Global (AFLG) has poured millions (an initial $10 million per each of its six to eight teams) into its new China Arena Football League, or AFL China. AFL China is pushing a different version of American football known as arena football, which is indoors, has eight players instead of eleven, and the field is fifty yards in length. The league expects to play its first season this year.

The NFL, America’s most lucrative professional sports organization with an annual revenue of over $9 billion, is also looking into the potential of the Chinese market. In 2007, the NFL opened a Shanghai office, its third venture into the Asia-Pacific after Tokyo and Sydney. NFL China believes that the popularity of American football in Asia is growing rapidly and projects that the current fan base of 14.1 million will reach 42 million by 2022 to become one of China’s top ten sports for viewing. Like the local AFLC, NFL China is also working at a grassroots level by running football camps, university flag football and other events to introduce Chinese athletes, especially children, to the sport. One of these bottom-up projects was an “NFL on Tour” truck that showcased American football in nine different cities.

While American football has seen success in China over the last decade, whether it will ever become a major pastime remains to be seen. One thing is certain; the sport provides an excellent platform for Americans and Chinese people to connect with one another both on and off the field.

Lincoln Lin is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.