American football is gaining traction among the younger generations in China. Since the founding of the youth Future League by Great Stone Gridiron Sport (GSG) in 2012, American football in China has burgeoned, and now boasts a professional league, the Chinese Arena Football League (CAFL), with teams from six major Chinese cities.
Traditionally, soccer and basketball have been the most popular sports in China. However, when the 2017 Super Bowl aired in China, the National Football League (NFL) discovered an eager market. Currently, about 1.5 million people in China watch live NFL games each week online — a 1000% growth in fan base in just over five years. In promotion of American football, NFL stars have visited China. Following Peyton Manning’s 2016 visit, Tom Brady visited China in mid-June this year.
The rapid growth in American football business in China attributes largely to Chinese parents, to whom the emphasis on discipline and teamwork appeals. American football is viewed by many in China as encapsulating the essence of American culture. Parents spend between $1,700 and $3,000 annually for children’s participation in the youth league. The high demand from Chinese parents transformed the youth Future League by GSG Sport from what was considered a niche market in 2012 to a 380 billion yuan business with 5,000 to 6,000 youth players, which continues to expand beyond Beijing and Shanghai. This year, GSG Sport began live streaming the Future League matches in partnership with sports media company LeSports.
Sports exchange between China and the United States is not unprecedented. The era of “ping pong diplomacy” began in the 1970s, when the US table tennis team was invited to play in China. Since then, federally sponsored sports exchange programs — especially in college soccer and basketball — between the two nations became more frequent in the 2010s. With 100 teams competing in the youth Future League this year and emerging professional leagues, the popularity of American football grows as the era of ping pong diplomacy continues.
Youngjin Kim is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student of International Affairs at the George Washington University.