Sports\Team China

Tackling a new level of support

By Sun Xiaochen | | Updated: 2017-06-19 16:15

American football needs more than the influence of the biggest star in the game to grow grassroots support in its largest untapped market.

New England Patriots superstar quarterback Tom Brady has created a buzz in China's small football community during his debut visit to the country, but to tackle more fans requires more than simply parachuting big names into a country where public perception of the game remains low.

NFL China knows the score, and has implemented a series of grassroots programs to help attract a new generation of supporters.

Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, said Chinese campuses should be the focal point.

"The challenge is to overcome the thought that the game is too foreign or that Chinese don't play this game — because they do actually do," said Young. "The level of play in schools here is solid proof of that."

The annual China University Bowl, the national collegiate flag football tournament that debuted in 2009, has expanded from 20 teams to 60 over the past seven years. In the less-physical version of the game, players defend by removing sashes attached to their opponents' waists instead of employing heavy tackles.

"We just need to reach a lot of schools and encourage them to play back and forth," said Young.

To engage more fans, mini clinics are held on the sidelines of the national finals as part of the NFL Play 60 youth promotion, which affords curious spectators an opportunity to learn fundamental skills.

The Play 60 program had reached out to more than 19,000 Chinese students by the end of 2016, while about 1.5 million viewers tuned in weekly to watch live NFL games on 15 media platforms last season.

The NFL's increasing media profile has also stimulated participation in tackle football, with more than 50 amateur clubs nationwide playing in grassroots leagues such as the 16-team American Football League of China.

"The interest is rising, but the sport remains a niche one compared to other mainstream events. Much more promotion and education is needed," said Shen Xizheng, general manager of the Shanghai Night Hawks.

Brady, the biggest name in the sport, hopes his first trip to China will boost interest.

"To show the people in China that you can get great inspiration from this sport is important," said the four-time Super Bowl MVP, who continues his tour in Shanghai on Tuesday.

"Hopefully, the people in China are open to understanding NFL football. It's really a great sport."

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