American football is catching on in a city that has long had closer ties to European sporting tradition.
On first glance, American-style football might seem like a strange fit for Hong Kong, where sports fans generally follow soccer, cricket, basketball and rugby, not to mention the more traditional Chinese disciplines, such as martial arts.
But a closer look reveals that American football has not only taken hold in the city, but is showing healthy growth in both the non-contact and full-gear variations of the game.
“It’s definitely growing,” said Ben O’Neill, Vice-President of the Hong Kong Cobras, a team that plays full contact, or “geared” football in the American Football League of China (AFLC). “When we started in 2010-11, there was one geared team in the city – us. Now there are five geared teams in Hong Kong, three of them that play in our league,” he said.
The AFLC features 12 teams across China, such as the Chongqing Dockers and the Chengdu Pandamen, and is looking to expand, according to league Commissioner Chris McLaurin. It’s not just American expatriates suiting up for those teams – league rules stipulate that locals must outnumber foreigners on the field at any time.
Mr O’Neill also plays lineman for the team on both offence and defense. Weighing at about 110 kilogrammes, his size is an asset for the team, but that hasn’t deterred smaller local Chinese players.
Club President Alpha Chia is a slight 1.7 metres tall, and plays cornerback on the Cobra’s defense. His position means that he must defend against the opposing teams’ pass plays, and must stop opposing running backs who have gotten past the defensive lineman.
“You Have to be Brave”
“The hardest part is to tackle someone bigger than you are,” said Mr Chia, a 26-year-old environmental consultant who has played geared football for four years. “You have to be brave and tackle with the correct posture or you will end up lying on the turf.”
Mr Chia learned the hard way last year, after breaking his left forearm from a bad fall. Now weighing 68 kilogrammes, he’s trying to get his playing weight back up to 82 kilogrammes.
Like many other Asians playing the game, Mr Chia doesn’t shy away from hits, and in fact, relishes it. “It helps build my mental toughness and gives me a goal to train my body,” he said.
Besides the full-contact version of football, a gentler version of the game, called flag-football, is also gaining popularity in Hong Kong, said Alex Berriman, President of the Hong Kong American Football League, which acts as an overall association for organised football in the city.
Ready for Growth
Flag football is largely non-contact, with tackles made by tearing off a velcro flag worn by the ball carrier. When the flag league began in 2013, there were about 100 players in Hong Kong – now there are about 150, said Mr Berriman.
A native of the United Kingdom who grew up in Hong Kong, Mr Berriman learned the American game from some friends from Texas. He noted that local Chinese seem to prefer the contact version of the game, versus the flag version.
“Full contact is roughly a 50-50 split between expats and locals,” he said. “Flag football is more like an 80 per cent foreign mix and 20 per cent locals. As to why locals seem to enjoy the more physical version, Mr Berriman ventured: “I think the locals like the ‘brotherhood’ aspect of the game. It’s about having a team leader and having each other’s backs. Also the John Madden video football game is popular here.”
Regardless of the reasons, American-style football seems ready for growth not just in Hong Kong, but throughout Asia, said Mr McLaurin, who’s based in Shanghai. The former college player for the iconic University of Michigan Wolverines said there is a combination of reasons for the burgeoning popularity in the region.
“I consider American football’s growth in Asia to be a product of globalisation; people attending college in the United States, Canada or Europe coming back and wanting to keep playing with their friends and family members,” said Mr McLaurin. “People in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China are catching onto new things and games, especially exciting and physically demanding ones like football.”
Mr Berriman is now busy organising Hong Kong’s first international flag football tournament, to be held in Hong Kong in May, with teams expected from Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, among others.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said.