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Further Reading

American football in China: Growing up steadily despite challenges

27 March 2015 | By Yao Liyan | SISU

  • AFLC Championship

    The American Football League of China (AFLC) Championship is the only professional American football league in China.

  • American football

    American football is a sport played by two teams of eleven players on a rectangular field with goalposts at each end.

  • Players

    Players are practising.


s the clock turned 10, Alejandro Caceres arrived at the Luwan Stadium. Practice on Saturday, as usual.

He strode towards the sidelines, where some of the teammates were already warming up. “Hey!” Upon approaching, he cried and stretched his hands to give each of them a high-five.

Laughter and cheers broke out, enlivening the otherwise large and empty field. He dropped his backpack on the ground and fished outall the equipment for training. The red logo of the Nighthawks stood out against the black T-shirt. The number 25 and letters Shanghai were imprinted in white.

He put on the T-shirt. The Shanghai Nighthawks American football team entered the court.

American football is still a new sport for most Chinese.Unlike basketball, which missionaries brought to China in the late nineteenth century and has long enjoyed government support, football is a recent import. But it’s growing fast in popularity. With 22 million people watching the Super Bowl in 2012, China has become one of the fastest growing bases in American football fans.

“Our team started an online forum at the beginning of 2006. Back then we were a group of American football fans. After several years of practice and growth, we got together to form the team,” said Zhang Tianshou, one of the team coaches.

Alejandro Caceres also joined the Nighthawks via the online forum. He came all the way from Ecuador to study in Tongji University in 2011. In thesummer vacation that year, he decided to stay in Shanghai and had nothing better to do. He logged in a forum for expats, to search for weekend events. He found that the Nighthawk was recruiting football players. He jumped in.

American Football was not popular in Ecuador and AC didn’t really know how to play the sport. He didn’t even know Chinese that well. On the field, he was asked two basic questions: “Have you played before? Do you know the rules?” Neither his answers nor his blank face delivered the right message. And he was assigned to play defense.

“It was fast and easy until someone said: ‘Let’s play tackle’.”People got more aggressive. Offense charged towards defense at full speed, crashing into each other, elbowing their way through. Defense body blocked and tackled them down. “So a few shirts were ripped and someone got his arm bruised. It became more dangerous but it was fun.” AC recalled.

After that he didn’t miss a Sunday practice for months. He was hooked. “The game was fun, competitive and the feeling of being part of a team was so much better thanany other sport I have ever practised.”

Months of practice made fans love American football even more. Some Chinese players started buying whole set of gear for full-tackle: helmets, pads, shoes, gloves, etc. Some of the foreign players offered to coach the team; some others bought or broughttheir gearsfrom home country. A professional team took shape.

Finally, through five years of hard work, the group of American football fans grew bigger and built anew team. As the first all-gear full-tackle football team established in Shanghai on August 30, 2011, they named the team Nighthawksas a metaphor of team spirit.

“The name Nighthawks was one of the four names we decided on. We picked Nighthawks because most of the players were from Shanghai. ‘Night’ refers to Shanghai as a sleepless. Likewise, we’re a group of people who never get tired. ‘Hawk’ evokes battles in the sky. We are as ambitious and courageous as the hawks. It suggestswe are always fighting and moving forward,” said Frank, a team member of the Nighthawks.

AC may not be the first to fall in love with football on first practice. Xin began to play this sport from scratch. He said he chose American footballbecause there were no specific requirements for sport specialties.

“For example, my height isn’t ideal for playing basketball. I couldn’t play the Chinese favorite Ping-Pang either, because my wrists weren’t flexible enough. All these sports have specific physical requirements. But for American football, as long as you practice hard, you can do well,” said Xin.

“The good thing about American football is that there are different positions. Every position needs a different body type. If you are big and fat, you do blocking. If you are short and fast, you can carry the ball. If you are very tall and fast, and you catch well, you are a catcher. Different positions exist for different body types,” said Memo Mata, a team member.

Poeple who used to study abroad play an important role in bringing American football culture back home, and they have played football overseas.ShouShou picked up the sport when he was studying in high school in Japan.

“I joined their team and played until I graduated from college. My team won the second place in the All-Japan High School Football Tournament,” said ShouShou.

Frank, the team manager, played American football when studying in the UK. “When our club was recruiting new members, I thought the sport was very cool. I played in a semi-professional team in the UK after graduation,” said Frank.

On July 6, 2013, the American Football League of China (AFLC) was founded with the intentions to create the first competitive league offootball in China. With eight teams in this national league, the sport is quickly gaining support and recognition throughout China.

The league consists of eight teams from different cities of the mainland China and Hong Kong: theTianjin Pirates, the Beijing Cyclones, the Shanghai Titans, and the Shanghai Warriors, in the east; and in the west the Chongqing Dockers, the Chengdu Mustangs, the Guangzhou Tigers, and the Hong Kong Warhawks.

The AFLC successfully held its first season - AFLC Championship, starting in October 2013 and wrapped up its final game in Luwan Stadium, Shanghai on January 12, 2014. The match was between eastern leaderShanghai Warriors and the best of the west, the Chongqing Dockers. The final game witnessed the Chongqing Dockers crowned the first championship.

The first season is officially over. The AFLC has arranged an exhibition season for the spring; they will incorporate informal games between the teams for practice and will arrange the second “real” season over the summer.

“We hope to grow to 10-12 teams next season. We have more people that want to play, instead of being fans, but our goal is overall growth in numbers of teams, fans, players, and games,” said James Fitzgerald, 23 year-old linebacker for the Chongqing Dockers and one of the founders of the AFLC.

Still, American football is a minoritysport in this country. Many teams, including the one in Shanghai, do not have a regular training place. "Cities that host teams in the league are far apart. The players have to pay traffic and accommodation out of their own pockets. Ideally we would want to win more sponsorship," said Christopher McLaurin of the Chongqing Dockers in an interview with ICS, an English TV channel in Shanghai.

"It's hard for the teams and the players in China, because they don't have a local association. We do want to support them. We want to do more, certainly doing our best to promote the sport. We’re also trying to gain more sponsorships for the teams," said Richard Young of NFL China.

The National Football League (NFL), a professional American football league in North America, first set up a China office in 2007.NFL China has been trying to promote American football with several campaigns.The“Home Field” Movement invites fans in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to visit a dedicated venue – a “home base for football” in each city – to get a taste of the American football experience. The NFL China also started the University Flag Football League. This league includes Chinese university students, competing between 36 universities across Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

But so far, the efforts have not paid off well. Without support from the government and airtimeon national television, the promotion of American football culture is hard. Up till now, China Central Television (CCTV) has no plan of covering Super Bowl, the annual American football championship game of the NFL. Director of the sports channel Jiang Heping said in an interview that despite American football’s popularity in the USA, viewers in China couldn’t understand this game.

In spite of these challenges, more people are attracted to American football.

“I think teamwork attracts me the most.There are 11 players on site and it requires ten players to cover one player. Some players might never touch the ball in their entire career. But they keep playing. They contribute to the team,” said Frank.

The birth story of the first AFLC champion Chongqing Dockers is also to be adapted into movies. At the beginning of April, Sony Pictures and Escape Artists have made a pre-emptive acquisition of “The Year Of The Pigskin,” a just-published feature on the New Republic by Christopher Beam about the unlikely success of the Chongqing Dockers.

“Surely it will get more people to know about American football and its development in China,” said Zeng Xi, a team member of the Chongqing Dockers and the New Republic magazine cover.

“There are millions of people in China watching the championship game Super Bowl. People are having their favorite players, just like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. So I think there’s big market here,” said Memo Mate of the Nighthawks.


Press Contact

SISU News Center, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Tel : +86 (21) 3537 2378

Email :

Address :550 Dalian Road (W), Shanghai 200083, China

Further Reading