World / Reporter's Journal

Chinese football players take to their new sport like old pros

By william hennelly (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-10-04 22:11

Chinese football players take to their new sport like old pros

The Beijing Lions (left) square off against the Shanghai Skywalkers on Sunday during opening-weekend action in the China Arena Football League. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Tao Yu took the snap in pistol formation and scampered left four yards into the end zone and into history. With that score, Tao became the first Chinese quarterback to play and also score a touchdown on the debut weekend of the China Arena Football League.

Chinese football players take to their new sport like old pros

Tao’s TD came during his Shenzhen Naja club’s 47-19 throttling of the Dalian Dragon Kings on Saturday at the LeSports Center in Beijing before a National Day crowd of 11,500.

Other Chinese-player firsts included the first kickoff, by Chao Ran Li of the Qingdao Clipper, who ended up tackling an American player on the return.

Qingdao wide receiver Tian Chu Zhang scored the first CAFL touchdown by a Chinese player and finished with four catches on the day. The Qingdao Clipper held off a last-minute surge by the Guangzhou Power to preserve a 38-35 win.

In the Sunday game, the Beijing Lions bested their big-city rivals the Shanghai Skywalkers, 54-53, in a thriller in the league’s first overtime game.

“I thought the crowd was very excited and into the game,” Ken Bozarth, AFL Global VP of operations, told China Daily. “Two out of the three games came down to the final drive. It was actually difficult at times to distinguish the Americans from the Chinese. That’s telling us how much the Chinese have improved with the guidance of their coaches and American teammates.”

“The story of this day was the surprisingly fast transition and effective play of the Chinese players,” said ESPN NFL football commentator Ron “Jaws” Jaworski, a former quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles and part of the CAFL ownership group. “All of us — owners, staff, US players and coaches are very, very happy for the success of the Chinese players in their debut.”

“Five years ago, people laughed at me when I said I would bring American football to China,” said Marty Judge, the US businessman who created the league. “Take a look around you. Here we are, on the home floor of the Beijing Ducks, and the China Olympics, and they came to see us — the CAFL, how about that?!”

The games capped off an exciting week for the new league, which saw future Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Peyton Manning visiting China to talk about the prospects for American football in the country, and news stories about American football in China in media such as Reuters, Bloomberg and Time.

The Sept 30 headline on the story carried the headline, “Peyton Manning’s looking for the Yao Ming of football in China.”

“Who knows? Maybe a player does come out of China like a Yao Ming — that would be the best way to create more interest,” Manning said. “It only just takes one.”

“I met a guy the other day in Shanghai who knew more of my statistics that I even do,” Manning told Time. “So there’s a great passion for football over here.”

AFL Global is the parent company of the CAFL, whose training program began in May 2013 at six Chinese universities. AFL Global was founded by Judge, whose IT staffing services company, The Judge Group, has been doing business in China for several years. The Arena Football League has operated in the United States since 1987.

In arena football, a team fields eight players at a time. Each CAFL roster features 10 foreign players and 10 Chinese, with two practice squad players (one foreign, one Chinese). There will be four foreign players and four Chinese players on the field at all times for each team.

The CAFL isn’t the only game of American football in town.

NFL China has been marketing the sport since 2007 and says its fan base grew from 1.6 million in 2010 to 19 million in 2015.

The NFL airs its games on eight regional TV broadcasters and online broadcasters such as Tencent Sports, Sina Sports, PPTV and iQiyi.

The CAFL moves on to host city Dalian this weekend with a triple header of games on Sunday.

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