During the first weekend in October, the teams from the Chinese Arena Football League (CAFL) made their debut in front of 11,500 fans in Beijing, China. Representing Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao, Dalian, and Shenzhen, the six teams compete in a six-week Super Series. The teams tour China together, with each participating city hosting a weekend of football. In November, the CAFL will have a championship weekend and crown the winners of the first “China Bowl.”
The CAFL is the country’s first professional American style arena football league and the result of four years of planning. Arena football, unlike its traditional NFL counterpart, is played indoors on a smaller field with fewer players. Each team’s 20-man roster is composed of ten American and ten Chinese players. In 2013, six Chinese universities began a comprehensive football training program, many of whose players are now in the CAFL.
Though soccer and basketball are more popular, Chinese interest in American football has been growing over the past few years. In 2015, Nielsen reported the Chinese population that expressed interest in the NFL jumped from 1.7% to 7.9% in just two years. There are several dozen amateur teams in addition to the American Football League China (AFLC), which is in its fourth season. The NFL is also eager to tap into China’s 1.4 billion person market. Earlier in September, retired NFL player Peyton Manning was in China on a promotional tour on behalf of the league, coaching clinics for children. Last year in the US, Chinese international students at the University of Illinois began broadcasting football games in Mandarin and hosting informative “Football 101” sessions. American sports broadcast network ESPN also recently inked a deal with a Chinese partner to get more American sporting events onto the TV screens in Chinese homes.
The long-term success of the CAFL and American football in China is yet to be determined. Still, the launch of the CAFL represents the continuance of cultural exchange between the US and China through sports. The start of sports diplomacy between the two nations began in the 1970s, when the US tennis table team was invited to play in China. This so-called “ping pong diplomacy” helped thaw relations and eventually led to President Nixon visiting the country in 1972.
Stephanie Gill is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student at the George Washington University.