American Football in China (Part 1)

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In August 2017, Tencent and the National Football League (NFL) signed a major digital media deal, which made Tencent the exclusive digital media broadcasting partner of the NFL in China. This deal has now made it possible for more and more Chinese people to understand and follow American football and the NFL, and it will allow for the sport to grow in prominence and popularity within China.
For those who have already been playing or are involved in the sport here, watching the game from the comfort of their own home is not enough to satisfy their desire for football. With the China Arena Football League (CAFL) playing its first season in 2016, professional football has already made its way to China. Outside of the professional ranks, there are numerous amateur teams playing the outdoor version of the game. Read on for more on how the sport has grown among adults here in China.
Football at the Adult Level
There are currently nearly 90 adult teams around China at the moment, spread across three amateur football leagues, the American Football League of China (AFLC), City Bowl, and China University American Football League (CUAFL), in addition to the professional China Arena Football League (CAFL). 

Every single Tier One, Tier Two, and most Tier Three cities have a football team, and some cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Chengdu and Guangzhou have multiple football teams that are competitive in either the AFLC or City Bowl. Most teams in China have very few, if not zero, foreigners on the team, which is what makes the future of the sport here so promising, as the interest level of local players is therefore very noticeable.

CAFL

The CAFL is a professional arena football league, and the only professional football league in China. The game is played by a different set of rules than regular American football, as the field is half as long, slightly more than half as wide, and passing is more common, among other differences from the outdoor game.

The field is 85 feet wide, 50 yards long, and the end zones are 8 yards deep.

2016 was the CAFL’s first season of operation, with 6 teams representing 6 different cities. Players are split equally between foreigners and Chinese players. Generally, the league’s foreign players are Americans that have previous arena football experience in the US, while its Chinese players often come from sports universities in six cities in China where the CAFL has been developing American football programs since 2013, as well as from various AFLC/City Bowl teams, or are overseas Chinese with previous football experience.

AFLC
The American Football League of China was founded in 2013 by Chris McLaurin, a former football player at the University of Michigan, and its current commissioner is Datong Wang. The number of teams in the league has grown nearly every year, and it currently has 18 teams participating.

The AFLC is often recognized as having the highest level of play among amateur football teams in China, and it follows a more traditional competition format of a regular season followed by single elimination playoffs. The league’s Championship Game will be taking place tomorrow at 1:30pm at Shanghai’s Zhangjiang Sports Center, so if you’re keen to get a glimpse up close of football in China, here’s your chance!

City Bowl

The City Bowl, another amateur football league, has 30 teams, covering a large portion of China, and the league allows its teams to schedule games freely, in contrast to the AFLC.

Teams are ranked according to voting from a ranking committee, their win-loss record, and voting by team representatives, with the top two teams at the end of the season advancing to the league Championship Game. The league’s 2017 champions are the Shanghai Street Cats, who defeated the Shenyang Hunters 22-6 in the title game last month.

CUAFL

The CUAFL is a league of 15 university teams in the Shanghai and Chengdu areas that crown two champions in its East and Southwest divisions.

Its season follows the calendar of Chinese universities, with a Fall and Spring season that culminates in playoffs and a championship game at the end of the school year. Last season’s Southwest Division champions were the Sichuan Normal University Stags, while the East Division champions were the Shanghai Institute of Technology Aurora.

Football has now had an established presence in China for more than 10 years. From the grassroots level on up to the professional ranks, it is clear to see that the Chinese market and its football fans are some of the most passionate sports fans in the country. Outside of adult leagues, youth football has also exploded in popularity in China recently, so stay tuned for the second half of our review of American football in China next week, covering the growth of the game at the youth level.

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Dragon Group Asia

DGA provides integrated marketing solutions for multinational companies in the US and China.