China to join pro football wars

Updated: 2014-10-31 07:02

By WILLIAM HENNELLY in New York(China Daily USA)

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China to join pro football wars

The Tianjin Pirates face the Wuhan Nine-Headed Birds during the first China American Football League (CAFL) University Championships at the Chaoyang Sports Center in Beijing earlier this month. The college games were used as a showcase for the nascent CAFL - the first American-style football professional league in China - which kicks off its inaugural season in September 2015. The CAFL will be an indoor league featuring Chinese players and American players and rules from the Arena Football League in the United States. Provided to China Daily

The league's timing could be fortuitous, as interest in American football in China is surging.

According to CAFL and National Football League (NFL) data, the number of urban Chinese ages 15-54 who consider themselves fans of American football grew from 1.6 million in 2010 to 14.1 million in 2013, or 462%.

"It is an exciting time for the sport in China," Richard Young, managing director of Shanghai-based NFL China, said in an email to China Daily. "Our fan base has grown from a little over a million four years ago to over 14 million in 2014."

TV viewership of NFL games in China (not counting the Super Bowl) went from 5.3 million in 2008 to 70 million in 2013, a gain of 1,320percent. The TV audience is projected to grow to 166 million by 2022. China's extensive television and social media networks also help drive interest.

Young said that NFL China features live, delayed and highlight broadcasts on more than 20 platforms across China. The NFL also sponsors a 36-university flag football league, 28 on-ground events and a 13-city NFL truck tour.

"Every year we do more than what we did the year before, and we are starting to see the benefits, but we are just beginning," Young said. "We are pleased to see the groundswell in interest in American football in China." Young said the NFL was supportive of the CAFL's efforts.

The new league is not without growing pains.

"The language difference is tough, especially with the referees," Judge said. "I have all American referees. Probably our biggest challenge is going to be the referees. We have a lot of training to do."

The CAFL hopes to have 14 teams in two conferences by 2016. The plan is for a North Conference made up of teams from Beijing, Tianjin, Qingdao, Nanjing, Shandong, Dalian and Shenyang. In the South, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Xi'an and Chongqing will be represented.

After a 10-game regular season and playoffs, the advancing teams will play in the CAFL Arena Bowl on Dec 11, 2015. An all-star game is scheduled for Dec 18 in Macao.

"This is historic," Judge said. "We're bringing American football to China."

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