The evolution of American Football in China

American football in China has been growing exponentially during the past eight years. This growth can be traced to its beginnings in 2011, when the first adult competition – The Founders Bowl – was played between the only two adult teams in China, and in the past month or so there has been over three national championships played between over 50 adult teams across the main two leagues at this time, the AFLC and the City Bowl League. If we add the teams that participate at college level (CUAFL), NFL Flag Football tournaments, and youth the numbers are approaching the 120-figure mark.

In this post we will cover the main leagues, stats from the 2018 season, and links to some of their official websites for each one of them. The sources used for this article will be listed below, in order to give the readers a first hand access of this information (Note: most of these accounts are in Chinese)

China’s Universities American Football League (CUAFL)

Photo: CUAFL Weibo

The CUAFL started as the “Big 4” in 2013, as a tournament organized by Shanghai Jiaotong Universty (Lions), Fudan University (Dragoons), Shanghai University (Bombers), and Tongji University (Strikers). During the 1st versions of the tournament, these 4 teams had a head to head competition and the winner was based in W-L record. After 2013 season the CUAFL was launched as a 1 year tournament that follows the Chinese school calendar, having their regular season games during autumn, winter and early spring, and the final decided before summer vacations.

The CUAFL has grown from 4 to 10 active teams in their last season, with each team having an average of 6 games plus 3 more games to reach the final. While there has been 15 teams that played in the CUAFL, some teams have not continued participating and others decided to play in other leagues. For more up to date information you can visit China Blitz (Chinese only) or visit their official Weibo account.

The CUAFL follows a slightly modified version of the NCAA rule book, with one of the main additions being that they have a limit of 3 foreign players on the field during a game, and a max of 8 foreign players registered during each semester.

It’s worthy to note that while the CUAFL is the main league for college teams at this time, there are other organizations that sporadically have held tournaments between “in-house” college teams, such as the AFU (American Football Union) that only allow Chinese players to participate in these competitions.

American Football League of China

Graphic: Igor Lazarevic

Founded in 2013 with 8 teams and 2 divisions, the AFLC has expanded to 20 teams and 4 division in their 2018 season. The AFLC is the strongest league in China at this time, having teams with some ex NCAA players, and local players that have been drafted for the Chinese Arena Football League in multiple occasions. The latest version of the AFLC final had the rematch between the Shanghai Warriors and the Shanghai Titans, having the Warriors come out with the victory in the 1st OT in AFCL Championship history, and their 3rd Championship in team’s history.

During its 2018 season each team had an average of 4 regular season games, and between 3 to 4 more games in order to reach the final. Out of the previous 6 finals, 5 of them have been between Shanghai teams, and only the 1st final had a team from outside that city, the Chongqing Dockers.

The AFLC follows also a similar set of rules to the NCAA and the IFAF, with minor additions. Similar to the CUAFL there is a limit to the number of foreigners on the field, being 5 at any given time. At this time there is no restriction to the number of foreigners register per season, being the only rule that in order to participate in a play-off game the player must have been part of a regular season game.

As a non-professional league the AFLC teams do not pay their players or coaching staff. For more information you can check the following links: China Blitz and their official Facebook page

City Bowl League

At this point the City Bowl is still largest and most widely distributed league in China, having 33 teams at the beginning of the 2018 season. The main difference between the 2 adult leagues is that the City Bowl has ranking approach similar to the NCAA, where teams are ranked based in the strength of their schedule. This schedules are set and coordinated between all the captains and general managers at the beginning of every year.

In 2015, some of the teams that originally participated in the AFLC decided to re-establish a new league, limiting the number of foreign players to 3 at any given time during the game, and using the ranking system as the first method to choose the champion of that season. After that City Bowl League added a set number of play-off games amongst the top teams culminating in the City Bowl Final. During the past 3 finals there has been always a new champion.

The City Bowl Teams play in average 6 to 7 games during their regular season, starting in April until October, after that the top teams go into a play-off bracket based in their rankings and the final takes place at the end of the year.

Similar to the AFLC, the City Bowl is a non-professional league and the teams do not pay their players or coaching staff. For more information about the league you can check the following links: City Bowl Official Website, and China Blitz.

China Arena Football League and other organizations

Photo: Source: http://caflfootball.com/

The China Arena Football League had a series of official games during their 2016 season, and they hosted 2 more combines for the 2017 and 2018 season but no games were played. At the time of this article the CAFL has announced that they will be launching a 2019.

Alejandro Cáceres
Alejandro Cáceres has been an active member in the development of American Football in China. He has been playing football with the Shanghai Nighthawks for the past 7 years and also played for the Tongji University Strikers in the Chinese College League. He hopes to one day to write a book regarding the development of American football both in China and his home country, Ecuador.
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