Basketball’s popularity has grown exponentially across China, with Yao Ming inspiring a new generation of players, and fans, ever since his momentous selection as the first pick in the 2002 NBA draft.
However, one of basketball’s traditional U.S. domestic rivals has also been making a greater impact in the People’s Republic of China. Founded in 2012, the China Arena Football League (CAFL) has enjoyed rapid progress since the first government-sanctioned CAFL games kicked-off in 2016.
As the first professional American football league to launch in China, the CAFL has adopted an eight-on-eight format with four Chinese and four foreign players on the field. As of 2017, the league now has six teams, representing Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, Quingdao, and Wuhan.
CAFL games have quickly earned a reputation for being high octane affairs, with big tackles, and high scores. Chris Li, a Lynk Knowledge Partner who has been a Senior Manager at the CAFL for over four years, suggests that American football stands to benefit from a new wave of Chinese citizens, who are more focused on
“physical, and cultural improvement.”
Li explains that the rise of China’s live sports market can be directly linked to a broader rise in wealth, and appreciation of wellbeing. Arena crowds range from approximately 5,000 – 11,500 with a steady domestic TV audience, the league’s early success has inspired plans to expand from six teams to ten in the near future.
There also appears to be a growing interest beyond China in the unique entertainment, and commercial opportunities, that this new sport offers. This is perhaps best displayed by NBA star Stephon Marbury’s recent purchase of the Beijing Lions (China Bowl Champions, 2016) demonstrating his confidence in the long-term future of the franchise.
However, according to Chris Li, the surprising popularity of the sport is down to more than just its raw entertainment value:
“Football is intertwined with American culture. This, combined with the sport being frequently used in high level cultural exchanges, has resulted in the younger generations taking an interest in foreign culture. Those who play football really feel like they are part of a team. As a result of the one-child policy, this sense of family really resonates with both fans, and players alike.”
While still at early stages, the CAFL clearly looks like it is on an upward trajectory. Not only has it garnered a loyal, and growing fan base domestically, it is also earning attention, and investment from overseas. For now, at least, it appears that football is here to stay.
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