China fast catching American football fever with 10 teams formed

There has been an explosion of interest on the mainland, with 10 teams formed in 18 months

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2012, 2:28am

While there may not be any NFL games planned in China, American football is taking off. In the past 18 months, 10 teams have formed, the first of their kind in the country.

While the players are amateurs and pay for their own equipment, the teams have created a scene reminiscent of the early days of the game in the US. More than 100 years ago, teams were formed to play what was then a college game, eventually morphing into the National Football League (NFL), the most popular sport in the US.

Over the past few years, it's become common to see a pigskin being tossed around at King's Park in Kowloon. Flag football tournaments have been held since 2003 and the sport has a strong following among locals through the popular Japanese manga, Eyeshield 21.

Last April, the Hong Kong American Football League (HKAFL) was established with plans of organising a flag football league. However, competing agendas among teams led to HKAFL president Alex Berriman changing course.

"Geared football wasn't expected to arrive for at least two to three years, but we thought starting the Hong Kong Cobras was the best way to bring all the football players together with a common ground," he said.

The Cobras' first practice was last December with many of the players using their HK$6,000 tax rebate to purchase football gear. The team now have over 80 players signed up for game day and have played three times, including a home and away series against the Philippines. Much to Berriman's surprise, the team primarily comprises local players, although more expatriates have been joining recently.

"We found that locals are really into the sport," Berriman says. "They love to watch it and talk about their favourite players. New players are showing up all the time and a second team, the Hong Kong Warhawks, are staring to form. "We're also hoping to start a youth programme next year."

For Cobras defensive back Alpha Chia Hoi-long, the team have finally given local football fans the right outlet to properly play the game. "At the time, we were mainly playing rugby-type football with tackling, but without the gear, which is quite dangerous," he says. "This is the first team playing real football."

The Cobras story has been a common one this year. A year ago, China's only two adult American football teams, the Beijing Guardians and Shanghai Nighthawks, played each other for the first time. Since then, they have been joined by eight others, including two teams from Guangzhou: the Guangzhou Southern Tigers and Guangzhou Goats who overwhelmingly comprise local players.

"We had been playing touch football in Guangzhou since 2008 but it wasn't until this year that we were able to get equipment," says Guangzhou Goats founder Anson Leung.

Football has been a passion for Leung, who also organised the Guangzhou American Football League (Gafa). He is hoping to capitalise on strong local interest which includes eight high school teams. "The kids really love football but they don't have equipment," Leung laments.

Another major problem for the teams is not receiving any government support. While teams are keeping a hopeful eye on the International Federation of American Football's (IFAF) attempts at getting the game into the 2020 Olympics as a demonstration sport, most understand that it's a matter of being patient.

"To become a registered sporting association, we must be running for at least three years," Berriman says. "When that happens then we will get plenty of support."

In the meantime, the three teams based in southern China are gearing up to play at the NFL Experience event in Guangzhou next Sunday. While NFL Hall of Famer Barry Sanders will be the star of the show, these events have served as important showcases for the local teams.

"We always want to have an exhibition game at these events and give teams a venue where they get to play," says NFL China managing director Richard Young.

"Two years ago there was nothing here but we're slowly disproving the idea that it's a game only for Americans. With these games, people can see Chinese people not only play but excel."

Since opening their Beijing office in 2007, NFL China has committed to a long-term growth strategy focused on teaching the basics of the game. It set up the NFL China University Flag Football League in 2008 and this year partnered with Teach Away to provide teachers with flag football kits as they embarked to teach in remote parts of the country. While supportive of these new teams, the league is saddled with the perception that it can be their saviour.

"We're a professional league, not an association," Young says. "We recognise that we have to play a role as an association [here] but we're limited because we have to do it ourselves," Young says. "If you look at the growth of basketball, there's not just the NBA, but associations like FIBA, the Asia Basketball Association and the East Asia Basketball Association that provided the structure that allowed that sport's growth to happen."

One of the biggest success stories that NFL China can point to is Guangzhou Tigers quarterback Ink Chen, who played for Guangzhou University in the university flag football league. "Before we started, local interest in football was pretty high with middle school students starting to play flag football in the Guangzhou region," Chen says. "As China has become more global, people have become more exposed to the wonderful values and rich sports culture of football."

The December games may be the last ones for the year, but everyone is optimistic about the sport's future growth.

With a record number of teams in China, there are high hopes that more games will be played between them. Already the Guangzhou Tigers are talking to the Shanghai Nighthawks about potential games next year and Berriman happily points out that there are over 100 players in Hong Kong with football equipment and a second team, the Hong Kong Warhawks, forming.

"There's a lot of potential for football in China," Berriman says. "If teams work together it will grow even faster."