As the clock started on Super Bowl XLII—Arizona Cardinals vs Pittsburgh Steelers, 2009, Florida—Ivan Yuan’s eyes were glued to his television. On screen, towering men in multicolored jerseys lunged at each other as fans in bleachers cheered. Helmets cracked. Whistles blew. Cleats dug into yard lines. Through it all, Yuan could feel the fire of team spirit, the camaraderie of competition.
Yuan wasn’t watching the game in Tampa, or even America, land of the free and home of the tailgate party. That Monday morning, he was more than 8,000 miles away, absorbed in the biggest American football game of the year from his room in Chengdu, China.
“I really, really, really like this sport,” Yuan says. “Football is about brotherhood, about team—it’s all about working together.”
Yuan doesn’t just watch the game: He’s the quarterback for the Chengdu Pandaman, a team in China’s amateur-level American Football League. He’s also one of a growing number of Chinese fans of America’s biggest sport.
Nearly 8% of the Chinese population watched at least one National Football League (NFL) game last year, according to a report by German market research group Repucom, compared with just 1.7% in 2013. Dragon Group Asia, the media-management firm for NFL China, said this year’s Super Bowl had more than 15 million Chinese viewers, even though it was broadcast in the country at 7:30am. Live NFL games are routinely streamed in China, and grassroots organizations like the American Football League of China have helped spread awareness by teaching adults how to play. In March, the NFL announced plans to play its first actual game in China in 2018.
The NFL has been flirting with China for over a decade. Talk of playing overseas games there—to date, most have been played in London—started as far back as 2003. In 2007, the organization made an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to establish the China Bowl, a preseason face-off between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. That same year, the NFL persuaded the Chinese government’s education bureau to introduce a flag-football league as a form of physical education at the collegiate level. Today more than 40 universities participate in the league, which the NFL still sponsors, and many of those who learned the game as teenagers are now teaching a new crop of players.
“I know this game because my sports teacher played it at [Beijing Normal University],” says Jack Wang, a wide receiver for both the Beijing Iron Brothers, an AFLC team, and the Beijing Jiaotong University flag-football team. “When he came to our school, he made a flag team to teach us how to play flag football. I got to know this sport [and then] I watched the Super Bowl and really loved it.”
Homegrown organizations are also spreading the pigskin gospel. In 2013, former American college football players Chris McLaurin and Zach Brown, who were living in China for work, started the American Football League as a means for other expat ex-players to find pickup games. Soon native Chinese residents wanted in. Today the league has 10 teams.
“When I practice with some of my players, [people] will stand around filming what we’re doing because they’re so excited to see something new,” says Vladimir Emilien, coach of the AFLC’s Beijing Guardians. “They’re so curious to witness people wearing pads, chasing a ball.”
Owen Yan, defensive end for the Shanghai Warriors (and a pharmaceutical salesman by day), had never touched a football before joining the AFLC. He discovered the game while watching rugby online.
“Another link came and I clicked it,” Yan says. “It was an American football game. It impressed me. It was interesting. I was working in Suzhou, and after I moved to Shanghai I started looking for American football teams to join and to play.”
The NFL has at least one compelling reason to recruit Chinese fans: The nation is home to 1.4 billion people. If the league were to capture even a fraction of that population, the potential revenue from ticket sales, merchandise, and broadcasting rights could be significant.
“American sports brands salivate at the chance to credibly penetrate the Chinese market,” says David Carter, executive director of the Marshall Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.
But the league is still proceeding with caution. NFL executive vice president of international Mike Waller says one lingering question is how to give Chinese fans a great game without compromising American players for the regular season.
“A business person can come back from Asia and be 60% to 70% efficient in a meeting and be fine,” he says. “For an NFL athlete, you can’t be 60% to 70% efficient on the field and hope to be competitively successful.”
Rumor has it that several football teams—including the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers—have expressed interest in playing a regular-season game in China, which might be the best compromise. Or at least the option most likely to entice China’s future football fans.
“As the NFL comes to China, that’s a really beautiful thing,” Yuan says. “People can [get to] know why football is the best sport in America.”
Benjamin Parkin and Jamie Martines contributed reporting.