By Steven Keehner
Around this time of the year, I, like thousands of Americans, devote my Sundays to football. Some may think of this habit as borderline unhealthy: sitting on a couch from 1 pm to 7 pm, eyes glued to a TV. Following the end of the daytime games, I noticed that I had time to spare until the "NBC Game of the Week". So, I decided to channel surf until then.
While scanning through what I thought of to be pointless television, I came across a program with the name "Football." I was extremely confused; did I miss the memo? Why wasn’t the game on NBC? It wasn’t until I clicked on the channel to discover that this wasn’t the NFL. This was the Chinese Arena Football League, China’s first American Football League. I also discovered that this was the “China Bowl," China's equivalent to the Super Bowl. The game was between the Qingdao Clipper and the Beijing Lions.
If you’ve ever watched the Arena Football League, this league is the same product. It’s eight-on-eight, fast-paced action, different from what you would see in the NFL. I was expecting myself to change the channel and watch the Seahawks-Patriots game, but I never did. The China Bowl was a thriller; Beijing pulled out a game-winning field goal against Qingdao. But, this came only after the kicker missed his first attempt. Then, a penalty flag gave Beijing’s kicker, Patrick Clark III, a second chance at winning the game, which he converted, giving Beijing a 35-34 win. By the time this game was over, the “Game of the Week” was also over, and I wasn’t even annoyed. I was still curious about the entire idea of American Football's rise in China. So I delved further to learn more; this is what I found out.
The CAFL, the Chinese Arena Football League is in its inaugural season. The first steps toward this league came when Ganlan Media, a Chinese media group, purchased the rights to create a Chinese affiliate of the Arena Football League. The AFL is an American modified-football league that has existed since 1987. Creating the league took a lot of work, like having the AFL coaches and players go to China to teach the sport of football to the Chinese public. Martin E. Judge Jr., the CEO of Judge Inc. bought the league rights from Ganlan Media during this time.
This attempt to generate interest succeeded. On November 10, 2013, the second AFL all-star game took place in front of over 6,000 fans in Beijing, China. This was the first-ever professional American football game played in China, and in 2014, the Judge Group announced their plans to create a professional American Football League in China.
The first CAFL season was supposed to start in fall of 2015, but it was postponed until the fall of this year. It was later announced that Six teams would headline the CAFL’s first season: the Beijing Lions, the Dalian Dragon Kings, the Guangzhou Power, the Qingdao Clipper, the Shanghai Skywalkers, and the Shenzhen Naja.
Before the inaugural season, on June 10, 2016, the league held a player draft; one interesting rule was that rosters had to feature half-Chinese players and half-North American players. Out of the 120 players selected, only 43 had prior AFL experience.
The first season's nickname was the “Super Series." Each team played each other once, and the top two teams played in the inaugural “China Bowl." As mentioned before, Beijing came out with the win in what turned out to be an exciting game.
David Niu, the league’s President said, “The league, and all our efforts, are unique to China. We want to highlight the fact that we are playing American-style football, not to be confused with soccer. And we want to emphasize that this is China’s first ever professional league, played by the best players in the world.” Martin E. Judge Jr. has already announced that investors are looking into expansion franchises.
Whether this league turns out to be successful, or it turns into another NFL Europa-esque experiment, it is fascinating to see another country gain interest in American Football. Could this be one step closer to the NFL gaining the global audience it is striving to obtain? Only time will tell.
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