The NFL is moving the ball, but hasn't yet scored, in China

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Flag football may be on the rise in China, but football is still relatively minor in the country.


Courtesy of NFL China

The New England Patriots' cheerleaders spent two weeks in Beijing recently, leading pep rallies and cheer clinics. 

Former San Francisco 49ers superstar quarterback Joe Montana toured the Great Wall of China in between visits to local flag football games. They're both examples of an outreach effort by NFL China, the NFL organization tasked with recruiting NFL fans and introducing the game of American football to China's young atheletes.

Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, says the number of Chinese football fans has doubled in the past three years to more than nine million, including three million who have a favorite NFL team they watch regularly on TV. As evidence that football is growing in popularity in China, Young points to the league of flag-football teams at 36 universities and the number of fans coming out to watch. Online streaming of football games, and promotional visits by former players like Montana, have also proven popular.

Slowly, but surely, Young believes NFL football is taking root in big cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. But he says the sport has to overcome some big cultural hurdles.

"Team sports aren't big in China, and the one-child policy has made parents more averse than ever to subjecting their kids to potential harm," he said. "And beyond all this, there's football itself, which has never been an intuitive product for American export. Even nations with an appetite for American things have traditionally found football exotic and inscrutable, one of those aspects of the culture that simply doesn't translate well."

In China's big cities, youth leagues are forming, he says. The highlight of the season was the flag football championship in Guangzhou. It was televised to 138 million people in the province, as well as nationally on one of China's digital cable channels. This season's fifth-annual University Bowl of China champion was Chinese Traditional Medicine University. They executed plays brilliantly; the defense gave their opponents different looks to keep them off balance.

The teamwork — which is what American football is all about, Young adds — really was apparent.

Young sees great oportunity in China, noting that it's a huge market. "We believe that we are actually making quite a big impact here," he said.

He also says he talks with Chinese fans all the time who appreciate the depth and complexity of the game.

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