Tackling a sport that’s tough to sell in China

Story originally published in the Shanghai Daily on October 16, 2014.

There is no way to escape American football if you live in the United States. It is omnipresent in bars, restaurants, and seemingly half of all television channels.

Football, as it’s called in the States, is considered the most American of sports, which may explain why it has a relatively small presence abroad. In China, however, that reality may be changing thanks in part to the AFLC, or the American Football League of China.

The organization began in July 2013, after a group of Americans interested in playing and promoting the sport in China met in Shanghai to discuss how they could organize the existing Chinese teams into a league and schedule a proper season for the fall.

China - Titans - Hawks action

“Our expectations were pretty low, given that, you know, there’s not a lot of resources for traveling and equipment and for adding new guys,” says Chris McLaurin, 27, commissioner of the AFLC. McLaurin, from Pontiac, Michigan, is project manager at a venture capital firm.

However, in 2013 they completed a 4-game season, and now the league boasts 12 teams in eight cities and is finishing up its 2015 fall season, which includes five games, a playoff game and a championship.

The Shanghai Titans is one of the 12 teams and one of four local teams in Shanghai. They operate with 75 official members.

“Our team, anyway, is all self-funded,” says 40-year-old architect Patrick Owens, from Long Island, New York, the assistant coach and defensive/offensive tackle, meaning no player is paid and each must pay a membership fee, insurance and buy his own equipment. “It requires a big commitment.”

Such a commitment, along with the nature of the sport, attracts a certain type of athlete, who is not scared by a sport that “takes a lot of physical and mental toughness.”

It’s not a stretch, though, to wonder whether the perception of roughness, along with the concept of losing face and the lack of youth football, will prove to be an obstacle in recruiting players and/or fans.

China - AFLC - Titans

But while the leaders of the Shanghai Titans admit they would like to see more youth football and more exposure in general, they also highlight current attempts to further expose Chinese society to football that they believe counteract such obstacles.

Kevin Coleman, 48, from Martinsburg, West Virginia, head coach of the Titans, points to youth initiatives such as the Shanghai Dragons, and linebacker and team captain Wang Datong mentions that the NFL-sponsored college flag-football program includes more than 30 teams (and around 1,000 players).

English teacher Chris Alceus, 29, from Brooklyn, New York, is defensive back and assistant coach for the Titans. He says the nature of football as a team sport promotes a certain amount of humility in all the players that makes them more willing to accept they will make mistakes.

The issue of safety is as much if not more of a concern in China as in the US, especially, Owens says, given the attitude of Chinese parents toward protecting their children.

When asked what measures the team and league are taking to minimize and treat injuries, Coleman (who is also head of the Health and Safety Committee of the AFLC) says the team and league teach a program called “Heads-Up,” which the NFL says teaches players how to tackle while keeping their heads and necks more protected.

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Kevin Coleman

When it comes to head injuries, if a player has taken a hit, there are questionnaires and procedures taken to determine whether or not they can continue to play.

“And right now, we have documentation that for any type of hit, injury or hit like that, we fill out that document and before that person can come back to the football field, whether a practice or whether it’s a game, they have to see a medical physician and get approved to come back,” Coleman explains.

The team takes the issue of safety very seriously, especially given that many of the players who are in their 30s have jobs and families.

One of the largest obstacles for all of the teams in the league is the cost of travel, which varies depending on where they are based. Thus, Coleman says, one of the main functions of the AFLC is to create a schedule that accommodates all 12 teams.

“We actually sit down with everybody and make sure that, if they want to be part of the league, that they are capable to meet the financial burdens.”

Commissioner McLaurin adds the league hopes to continue to build on this “pay-to-play model,” while also working together with other teams so that “we create opportunities so that we can get sponsorships that can help with those costs.”

The overall goal of the AFLC is to develop an infrastructure for football in China that will last. This translates into laying down the rules for play, establishing bodies such as the Health and Safety Committee, marketing the sport and building more of a presence for it, and teaching teams how to grow and run a football club.


The fan base for the league is now mostly Chinese and about 80 percent of the players are locals, which is indicative of the league’s commitment to fostering local football with local players.

As for the Shanghai Titans, while they do not actively advertise, they tend to recruit players through a presence on Weibo and word-of-mouth, attracting friends and colleagues of current players that come to see a game and want to get involved. They also welcome volunteers who want to contribute to other aspects of the game.

China - AFLC - Titans+Pandamen

“We haven’t really done much recruiting. I mean, we didn’t do any ads or campaign,” says 41-year-old team captain Wang, from Honolulu, Hawaii. “It’s kind of word-of-mouth.

“I think in China, old people don’t really like football, they think it’s violent. For young people, they actually enjoy it or they like to watch it. They think it’s fun, exciting, cool, so we usually don’t have any problem attracting young people,” he adds.

“They come to watch us practicing, and then it’s like, ‘hey, I wanna play, how do I get involved?’ So some young people seriously want to be part of this (sport).”

 Read the original story here.

Journalist covering international news and culture. Has been published several times in The Shanghai Daily newspaper and in Le Mandarin International magazine. Well-traveled to countries in North America, Asia, and Europe.