By Jonathan Kaiman – October 4, 2016
Stadium lights glared through heavy Beijing smog, top-40 bass lines shook the stands, the smell of cheap hot dogs filled the air and the Dalian Dragon Kings strutted onto the field, shouting and clapping in their crisp blue uniforms.
A few hundred had gathered to watch the Dragon Kings take on the Shenzhen Naja, marking the second game in the first season of the China Arena Football League — China’s first professional football league, a scrappy, six-team operation run by a company based in Conshohocken, Pa.
As the game unfolded — snaps fumbled, kicks blocked and touchdowns scored — the children in the stands roared with delight, while their parents whispered quizzically about running backs, field goals and other unfamiliar lingo.
“In the past, I just liked watching the commotion, but now I’m starting to understand the rules,” said Zhang Xinjia, a 46-year-old security guard, his eyes trained on the ball. “No doubt American football will be successful in China — it’s such a confrontational sport.”
Football, America’s most popular sport, does not enjoy a huge footprint in China, the world’s most populous country. For decades, many Chinese have found the rules too byzantine, broadcasts too infrequent, fields and equipment too scarce. Critics say that Chinese parents, repelled by the sport’s high injury rate and fears of concussions, would be reluctant to let their kids play.