How American football is taking on China challenge – and winning

Gridiron is gaining ground in China as parents turn to the sport to help their youngsters develop character and self-reliance

From the sidelines of a makeshift football field, set up on the weekend near a Beijing shopping mall, fans are yelling encouragement as the players take up their positions under the floodlights.

“Go, Sharks, go.”

The two teams squaring off are the Sharks and Vipers, made up mostly of primary school pupils aged between six and 10 years old. “Grab the ball and hold on to it,” a middle-aged man, recording the play with a camera, shouts to a broad-shouldered snapper.

Unlike basketball, which has a long history in China (the game was introduced by Christian missionaries in early 1900s and is now played by some 300 million people in the country), most Chinese know little about American football.

China - kids team shot

But its popularity has been growing in recent years, says Shen Yu, marketing director for Great Stone Gridiron, an American football club established in Beijing three years ago. (According to the Gridiron Leaders Foundation, the number of football teams in China has grown more than 10 times from three in 2012 to 36 in 2014.)

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Alvin Dong is a staff writer for the South China Morning Post