By Alex Endress
They might be far from Uncle Sam, but that doesn’t stop the Gameday China group from playing American Football in Shanghai.
Led by Erwin Sennett Wu, a 28-year-old American from Long Beach, California, the backyard football club represents a portion of China’s small but growing population of American-style football fans. The crew meets every Sunday at local parks and universities to run through warm-ups, drills, and scrimmages.
Wu’s club is also a bit player in the National Football League’s burgeoning vision of building a fan base in a country that’s never hosted a professional football game. The NFL’s international reach spans as far as London, where the league has played one game in each of the last four seasons. That global push is part of the NFL’s plans to expand their fan base, possibly increasing revenue from merchandising and advertising along the way.
Wu has a more modest goal. “What I’m trying to do right now is build a solid community,” he said. Gameday China has enough regular participants for one game every Sunday, according to Wu. However, he has high hopes for continued growth: “Hopefully we can start [our own backyard football league] one day.”
American Football has much to overcome if it is to succeed in China, a place where soccer and basketball have already planted roots. The NFL planned to host an exhibition game between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks in Beijing in 2007. Dubbed the “China Bowl,” the game was rescheduled to August 2009, and eventually canceled altogether in order to put more efforts into a regular season game in London – the first regular season game to be played outside of North America.
“We have a long ways to go, and we realize that,” said Richard Young, Managing Director of NFL China in Beijing. “But we do want to make sure that China is part of the development plan oversees for the NFL.”
The NFL, which has offices in Toronto, Mexico City, London, and Tokyo, established its Beijing office in October 2007. Aside from supporting groups like Gameday China, the NFL also promotes its own development program—the NFL University Flag Football League.
“Flag football has changed over the last 10 years to become a sport on its own,” Young said. “It’s a very good way for people to become initiated into the rules and the general strategies involved with American football.”
While the league is more similar to American college intramural competition than a Division I sport, it seems to have captivated the hearts of participants in China. “It was a whole new world,” said Andre Rook, a quarterback for the Fudan University team in Yangpu district.
Rook, an ethnic Chinese who was born in China and has lived there his entire life, said that most children in China are steered toward safer sports like ping pong at a young age. “You don’t have to follow what the community tells you,” Rook said. “You can be different.” Rook, a 24-year-old, has already graduated from Fudan, but is still allowed to play on the team.
Rook fits snuggly into the NFL’s mold of a Chinese football fan.
“There’s no question—people who play and who have been involved have a much higher level of interest in the game, whether or not its flag or whether its contact,” Young said.
The NFL is also working closely with China’s 14 state-run sports schools. Graduates of the schools tend to work in physical education, and the NFL hopes some of these graduates can implement football programs in middle schools and high schools, according to Young.
Memo Mata, from Austin, Texas, has already taken a lead on this. Mata has been coaching his own, full-contact, Chinese youth football team since February 2010. The team began as an extracurricular class at Xie He Primary School in Shanghai, but branched off as a private organization in spring of 2011. Mata calls them the Sea Dragons. In December 2010, the NFL sent Ed Wang, Offensive Tackle for the Buffalo Bills, to hold a clinic for Mata’s team.
Mata said that at first, parents tended to be apprehensive toward the sport because of its violent nature. He further explained that because of China’s policy limiting families to only one child each, parents are extra protective of their children. “But when they saw the discipline that football can bring out in someone, and [that] you have to actually use your mind, and run plays, they really respected it,” Mata said.
Song Xuhua, father of running back Luca, has enjoyed watching NFL games since the 1980s. He believes the game instills confidence in his son. “Boys should be brave,” he said. “And in China, boys tend to be reserved, resisting risk. To have this kind of experience [with football] is what we are wishing for.”
Aside from grassroots level operations, the NFL also holds large scale NFL Experiences in China during the fall season, introducing fans to NFL cheerleaders and former athletes. “They bring the pageantry of American football to China,” Young said. “While it is on a very focused group – when it comes to percentages – these are people who will be the ambassadors for the game.” The next NFL Experience is scheduled for Nov. 26 at Shanghai South Stadium in Shanghai.
A diverse range of activities are offered at these events. Those that are curious may test their skills against the athletes, or participate in a punt, pass and kick clinic, which takes place at the stadium’s field. Other festivities include games put on by the university flag football league, and an EA sports competition, as well as parties with organizations like Sports Illustrated during the evening. Mata’s team is scheduled to hold a demonstration at the next NFL Experience in Shanghai this November.
“We have a vision of being a very significant element on the China landscape for a longtime,” Young said. “[We] believe that we can be seen as a very professional, very entertaining, very high quality sports league that can be followed by a large percentage of the population in China… and we believe in the next couple of years we’re going to see great strides here in China—absolutely – with the popularity.”
As for Wu, he’s going to keep playing – and recruiting.
“It will catch on,” Wu said. “When we play out here, we have anywhere upwards to 50 people just coming out here to watch.”