The National Football League currently maintains four offices around the world. There is an office in Mexico City. The NFL has been popular in Mexico since at least the 1970s, and some of the largest-ever crowds to watch preseason and regular-season games were recorded in the nation's capital, where the league has staged games since 1994. There's another office in Toronto, where the league claims a fan base of nearly 1 million, the most die-hard among them along the border. NFL Europa shut down operations in 2007 but an office continues to thrive in London, where an annual regular-season game is played at Wembley Stadium. Commissioner Roger Goodell has even mused, carefully and obliquely, about one day placing a franchise there.
The last office is in Shanghai.
How does one begin to explain how unlikely NFL China is? Anything you want to assume about a nation that constitutes nearly 20 percent of the world's population is probably true. China is whatever you want it to be: Massive and diverse and black-hair sameness, ancient and postmodern and blink-of-an-eye changing, it requires a different scale of description. But it's probably not the riskiest generalization to suggest that China does not conform to anyone's vision of a hotbed for American football. When I arrived in Shanghai, I was offered a litany of reasons, ranging from the cultural to the genetic, for why the sport would never catch on among locals. For example: There isn't a deeply ingrained sports culture in China, and what little energies were devoted to following such things usually involved international competition. Team sports aren't big in China, either, and the one-child policy has made parents more averse than ever to subjecting their kids to potential harm. 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.
But something unusual is happening throughout China's major cities, where football is one of the fastest-growing sports. Local Chinese kids are buying cleats and pads and starting teams and football clubs. Nearly 40 universities compete in an NFL-sponsored flag football league, and a pilot program is under way that brings the sport to under-resourced schools in rural China. Millions are going online to watch games. It's the product of both the NFL's increasingly sophisticated understanding of international marketing as well as a growing network of tireless, infectiously fanatical locals and American expatriates. Together, this loose community represents the next major market for the NFL as well as a peculiar opportunity for the Chinese themselves to rethink their assumptions about culture and society.
I went to Shanghai in March to attend a scouting combine organized by American Football Without Barriers (AFWB) and the China Sea Dragons, a local youth football program. Seahawks tackle Breno Giacomini, Panthers tight end Gary Barnidge, and their college friend Ahmed Awadallah founded AFWB as a way to introduce football to kids in different countries. They described it as a sort of charitable mission with a built-in see-the-world component, and Shanghai was their first trip. Barnidge's Panthers teammates Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams, and Thomas Keiser rounded out the delegation. Each kid at the AFWB combine would have his workout videotaped, and those with the most impressive measurables would have their tapes sent back to recruiters in the States. "Our ultimate goal," Barnidge explained, "is to get kids looked at in other countries. Football never recruits in other countries. We're trying to change that. We want kids to have the opportunity to come live the dream they only get to see on TV."
Their hosts were the Sea Dragons, arguably the most successful youth football program in China. Founded and coached by an energetic local English teacher, an expat named Guillermo "Memo" Mata, the Sea Dragons field teams in three age brackets. Unlike some of the other youth programs, the Sea Dragons pride themselves on bilingual coaching and their mix of local Chinese and expat kids. The night before the combine, Mata organized a banquet and invited some of the Sea Dragons, their parents, local officials from the sports ministry, members of the U.S. consulate, and staff from the NFL China office. I chatted with a 16-year-old named Winston Hsu. He discovered the Sea Dragons one day when he and his family were driving down the street and the team was practicing on the side of the road. He was a little heftier than the other kids, so he ended up playing on the offensive line. His father ushered him from guest to guest as though this were a room full of the most important people in the world.
Once dinner began, the NFL players talked about all the sights they wanted to see and humored our questions about how much food they could put away. Keiser explained the benefits of chia seeds and said the only thing he had been shopping for was bootleg Rosetta Stone language software. Giacomini looked forward to eating a scorpion. They leaned back in their chairs and dared each other from across the room to try each strange, new dish that materialized from the kitchen. "I don't do chicken claw," Smith said, laughing. It was surreal to think that all this was happening in China, a country that had spent much of the past century resisting the West and its "spiritual pollution." When I started coming to China, it was difficult enough finding a Coke or a copy of USA Today. Things had no doubt changed over the past 15 or so years, but could football actually penetrate the local consciousness? What would that even mean in cities as sprawling and diffuse as Beijing or Shanghai? Mata had scheduled a press conference for that afternoon, only nobody showed up. The night ended the way these Chinese banquets often do, with a group photograph. In the hallway, one of the servers asked me what the special occasion was. I explained as best I could in Mandarin, but she seemed profoundly baffled when I mentioned American football. She pointed at Giacomini and dissolved into giggles at how adorably massive he was, hiding behind a door when he looked our way.
It was hazy the next morning as I set out for the combine. It was hazy every day I was in China, except for one appallingly polluted morning in Beijing when the weather app on my iPhone depicted a black sun. The combine was held in Minhang, a relatively quiet section of Shanghai where a lot of expats live. Mata had gotten permission to use the facilities of a local middle school. It was a familiar scene at the school's main gate, kids with their overstuffed duffel bags and pristine, Day-Glo cleats dashing off toward the field, far too excited to see their parents waving good-bye from their cars.
I saw Winston, who had come to hang out and cheer on his friends; he had recently dislocated his wrist, so he wouldn't be participating in the combine. I ended up talking to his mother, Tiffany, who kept apologizing to me for not actually knowing anything about the sport. All that mattered, she kept saying, was that Winston had found something to be passionate about. She said there was one morning when she awoke at 6:30 a.m. to find him sitting in the living room dressed in his full gear and uniform, counting down the hours until practice started. Sports never interested him, she observed, but football was different. It had changed him.
Football in America is closely associated with working-class communities, the ready-made tableau of small towns throughout the South or Midwest where collective esteem rises or falls according to how the local team did. This isn't always how it works elsewhere. In England, for example, there remain pockets of middle-class NFL fans who turned to the sport after the hooliganism of the 1980s left them alienated from soccer. In rural China, the NFL's flag football initiatives have helped democratize the playground; nobody grows up playing the sport, so there's no natural hierarchy. They can all — boys and girls — be awful and then learn together. But in cities like Beijing or Shanghai, football seems to represent the cosmopolitan or exotic — it's the distinction associated with being into something others just don't understand.
The players manned different stations around the field and demonstrated the drills and exercises they wanted the kids to do. DeAngelo Williams was trying to explain the box jump to the kids he was working with, only they didn't understand why you would ever want to jump onto a box. "What do y'all kids do for fun?" he kidded, and his prodding about racing through fields or hopping over creeks or skipping stones was met with even more blank stares. He did envy one thing about them, though: Many of the kids had picked their own names. Browse the rosters of Chinese football teams and you'll come across kids who had named themselves Kaka, Rocket, O-God, Shady, D-Boy, even Jay-Z. "I'd pick something badass," Williams decided. "I think I'd be, like, 'Lil Wayne.'"
An expat named Erwin Sennett Wu was helping Williams time some sprints. Wu moved from Southern California to Shanghai in 2009, hoping to wait out the recession. He had played high school football at perennial powerhouse Long Beach Poly in the late 1990s, and a friend told him about some local Chinese guys who would get together every weekend at a park in Shanghai and play football. "They bought a football off Taobao — the Chinese eBay — and they were throwing it around. They learned the game just from streaming the NFL online," Wu explained. "There was a really small community that was really passionate about it." For a while they would just gather in the park and scrimmage, often bribing guards who weren't sure whether this was permitted. People would stop and watch, and more locals joined in. Around early 2011, Wu started Gameday China, a hub for locals and foreigners to get together and play some pickup. (There is also a Chinese-language site called TDL.) He and Mata played together on the Shanghai Nighthawks, the city's first adult tackle football team, and he occasionally helps out with the Sea Dragons.
Wu recently quit his job to spend more time developing the sport in Shanghai. He estimated that there are about 15 adult teams throughout China that have emerged in the past two years. He's developed some theories about why college-age and twentysomething Chinese are increasingly drawn to the sport. It's about football, certainly, but it's also about the accoutrements that go with it — the gear, the uniform, the associations with American luxury. "In a country with 1.4 billion people, a lot of people want to be unique," he said. "They want to stand out. And when you put on a helmet and shoulder pads, you look cool. You look unique. You play this sport that nobody really understands."
When Wu told Williams that a pair of cleats runs about $250 in China — they have to be imported from the U.S., even though they were likely made here — the Panthers running back was astounded. These are precious, cherished commodities. Almost all the Chinese guys Wu knows who play football use photos of themselves in full pads for their WeChat messaging avatars. Wu and his Nighthawks teammates have a pact that if any of them go to the United States for business or to visit family, they are obligated to bring back three pairs of shoulder pads for the team.
All of this isn't to say that the local Chinese kids aren't dedicated to improving their craft and mastering the game itself. It takes a different level of dedication to perfect a spiral by streaming games on the Internet. "It means a lot more to the locals than the foreigner," Wu remarked. It's just that they sometimes come to the tradition in a different way.
Maybe the only definitive thing that can be said about China is that there is a lot of money to be made there. This is something the NFL seems to understand at an intuitive level, even if it's not clear what the immediate strategy should be. Despite being the least obviously "global" of the major American sports, the NFL's efforts to push football to international audiences date back to the 1980s. The first American Bowl took place in London in 1986. In the years that followed, preseason exhibitions under the American Bowl banner were staged in Mexico City, Tokyo, Dublin, and Sydney. The World League of American Football (WLAF) launched in 1990, establishing franchises in London, Frankfurt, and Barcelona. In 2005, the league replaced the American Bowl with an annual regular-season game played abroad. The first was in Mexico City, attracting over 100,000 spectators.
There have been a lot of false starts along the way. The WLAF, for example, was an idea before its time. And it seems like whatever fans the NFL acquired in China in the 1980s and 1990s came about by accident rather than design.
Paul Song stood along the edge of the track, watching his young son Luca run cone drills with Keiser. Song is a rarity among Chinese fans in that he's been following football since 1987. "There was a sports program on CCTV [the state-run TV network]," he explained to me in Mandarin, and they would occasionally show clips of American football games. "I liked watching. There was something interesting about it. I didn't think it was violent. I like things with rules and strategies. It was like watching war." Song was in high school at the time. It would be years before he met another person who watched those CCTV segments. "None of my friends liked it."
In 2007 the NFL scheduled a preseason game between the Patriots and the Seahawks in Beijing. The China Bowl, as it was called, never happened. The league explained that it wanted to focus its international efforts on Europe, though local fans speculate that simply not enough tickets were sold to make the China Bowl worth their while. Song believes that a more solid fan base has emerged in just the past couple years. Nowadays, you can watch as much football as you want on the Internet, and that's made it more readily accessible to people like his son. "He likes Tom Brady because he's handsome," Song laughed. As soon as there was a lull in our conversation, Song dashed off across the field to take pictures of his son and his friends.
When Richard Young, managing director of the NFL's China operations, talks about the sport's future here, he recalls a conversation he had 20 years ago when he was studying Chinese in Beijing. Circa 1990, there were not many places to get an exemplary cup of coffee in China. He went out to a local café one day with a Chinese classmate who had never tasted coffee before. "He choked down this black liquid," Young recalled, "and he made this face and I think it upset his stomach. It probably made him gassy. On the way out, he said, 'Richard, thank you. But I'll tell you something. The Chinese will never like coffee.'
"The Chinese words he used were almost like we're physiologically different we don't like that our taste buds are different."
Young was bemused and slightly horrified by the ease with which his friend spoke on behalf of the entire country. This kind of rampant overgeneralization is something that often happens when you're on the outside looking in — there's no shortage of business strategy manuals breaking down exactly how the Chinese "are." But Young believes that this notion of cultural difference is also something that's self-perpetuated, an excuse to never change, maybe even a convenient mystery within which to shroud yourself.
If there are challenges to football's growth in China, Young said, they aren't inherent to some fundamental characteristic of Chinese identity. "In China, sport isn't generational," he said. "They didn't grow up with their dad playing catch in the backyard. It's flipped. You see a lot of 40- or 50-year-old guys wearing Lakers caps, and if you ask them why they're wearing a Lakers cap, they'll say, 'Oh, my son loves them.'"
This is why Young was at the combine, checking in on the kids who will, in a few years, inherit China's massive buying power. What the NFL wants them to buy, however, remains unclear. At a time when China represents an opportunity to get rich quick, his office's strategy is careful, unhurried, and remarkably far-sighted. They currently oversee a national flag football league for university students. They fly out former NFL superstars and host events where local Chinese can learn how to throw and catch — demystifying the physics of football, they've found, is a key to winning and retaining fans. By all accounts, they're doing a terrific job, and part of this is because their work isn't in the service of a single goal. Anything is a possibility, whether it's bringing a team to China, having exhibition games here, starting an arena league (a no-brainer, given the pollution), or just boosting apparel sales and sponsorships. Or maybe it will be none of those things. It's about making football a part of an entire generation's worldview and seeing what happens next. The model for success isn't Yao Ming, and the NBA's global model isn't easily applicable to football. Instead, Young offers, think about the growth potential in apparel if a Chinese pop star is wearing a Packers cap in his viral video.
This isn't the NFL's first foray into Asia. There was an office in Tokyo up until 2012, and an NFL Japan website remains. The Beijing office opened in 2007, relocating to Shanghai earlier this year. "We have a long-term plan," he explained, before launching into an absorbing analysis of China's demographics, whittling the 1.35 billion mass to the core they are targeting: 38 million city-dwelling Chinese men between the ages of 15 and 54 who have expressed an interest in sports. They currently claim about 3 million "avid" fans, and that base is growing by 40 to 50 percent annually — it's a tiny sliver of a sliver of the Chinese population, but that's still a lot of people. By 2020, they hope to be a top-10 sport in China's major cities.
Young is fond of frequently returning to the coffee analogy as a way of illustrating just how successful the league can be even if its presence feels more or less peripheral. "I don't think Starbucks came in here and said, 'We're going to have to kick the hell out of tea. We've got to beat tea. You're never going to beat tea. But that doesn't mean that Starbucks doesn't have a really good business here."
The NFL has set a revenue goal of $25 billion by the year 2027, and China is no doubt a part of that. What's strange about listening to Young talk about "reach levels" and "sponsor activization" is that it doesn't really sound all that mercenary. So there's a lot of money to be made — no real shock there. A lot of companies have come to China for the same reason. But I couldn't stop thinking about something Young said about the unintended social consequences of introducing football to China.
As Young explained, a sport like football could help the next generation of Chinese kids rethink notions of duty, teamwork, and sacrifice. It could change the way people understand organizational culture and redefine the meaning of "collective" obligation. There are lessons one learns, he explained, from playing a game in which you have to give and receive hits, in which you have to work with and trust others. This isn't an intuitive part of growing up in China, where the cities are filled with only children and the educational system stresses independent achievement. "You realize that mental horsepower — test-taking — will take you to a certain level. But it's your ability to understand when to be a star, when to be a team player, how to interact with other people that keeps you there."
It all sounded a little outlandish and triumphalist to me, but I kept hearing variations of this very idea from others. When I had talked to Wu earlier about his time with the Nighthawks, he had said one of the most fulfilling aspects of keeping the team open to locals was seeing the Chinese guys embrace the team concept. "A lot of those principles are missing," he argued, "not only in team sports, but culturally. With the whole one-child policy, you grow up and you're singled out. You don't have to deal with siblings." During the lunch break I wandered across the field to a stand that a local barbecue restaurant had set up. While waiting in line for a burger, I started talking to Kevin Kuo, an imposing but kind-faced 19-year-old with a glorious Mohawk. He became interested in football in high school, learning a lot of basic skills from videos on the Internet. He had been training for the past two months for this opportunity to be scouted at the combine and potentially continue his education in the United States.
"People don't grow up playing team sports," Kuo observed when I asked him about football's appeal among his friends. "A lot of people don't know how to work together — the spirit of the team, leadership, teamwork. Football taught me a lot, man."
A couple weeks later, I returned to Shanghai to visit Mata and his wife, Liang Hai Yan. We met at a coffee shop near a shopping center where they were going to do their weekend grocery shopping. Mata was wearing his Sea Dragons hoodie.
Mata is an upbeat and relentlessly positive guy, and he speaks with the kind of precision and formality one expects from a former Marine. He was born in Brownsville, Texas, and grew up on a farm a few miles from Mexico. Around middle school, his family moved to Austin. He played on the same high school football team as Drew Brees, though any dreams of athletic stardom were dashed when his girlfriend gave birth to a son during their senior year. He had to find a job quickly. A few days after graduation, he enlisted. He served on active duty from 1997 to 2001, remaining in the reserves for a few years after that.
A career in the military didn't suit his worldview. In 2005, Mata completed his studies at Texas State University in San Marcos and found a job as a special education teacher in Austin. But the pay was paltry. He struggled to make ends meet, and it seemed fantastical that he would ever save enough to support his sons. "The American Dream seemed unattainable," he said. "There was no way I was ever going to save college money for my kids. I needed something different." His now ex-wife was moving to Australia with their sons, so Mata decided to move there as well and help raise them. There were lows: Unable to find a path in Australia, he looked for work in New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan before finally landing a steady gig teaching English in a small town in China.
It was exhausting to listen to Mata connect the dots of his life. There was no sense of entitlement as he spoke of the gradual dissolution of his American life. Maybe the system is broken, but what can you do but work harder? Mata settled into his new life in China, eventually meeting Liang. They got married in 2006. They lived in a small town called Longjiang.
Mata has a rosy complexion, and he seems to glow whenever he speaks of football's influence on his life. He was a passionate teacher, often shoehorning football into his English lesson plans and teaching the game's basics after school. "I noticed that these kids started performing better in the classroom," he recalled. The boys and girls who were playing football together began helping each other with their lessons.
Mata and his wife moved to Shanghai in 2008, and he started an after-school football program for third- and fourth-graders. Expat-driven youth leagues already existed, but Mata wanted to do something for the locals. He started an official team at his school in 2010, renting helmets and pads from the Shanghai American Football League, one of the biggest expat organizations in the city. He was over the moon, even going so far as to challenge the SAFL team to a game — "Your American kids against my Chinese kids."
The school chartered them a bus, and TV crews showed up as well. It was the first tackle football game between two different teams in China. "My team went out there," Mata remembered, pausing for suspense, "and we lost. I think we got one first down. But the kids had such a good time. They loved it." His kids stripped out of their equipment — it belonged to the SAFL, after all — and left it on the field.
News of Mata's team spread on the Internet, and that winter he was approached by NFL China to host an event with Ed Wang, the Chinese American lineman who had been a Bills draft pick. The SAFL was unable to loan out its gear. He wanted Wang's visit to be perfect, and that meant finding pads, helmets, and uniforms for his kids. They had to look clean and proper. They had to look like football players.
An official at the school said there was a chance Mata could be reimbursed for the equipment if he just bought it himself. "It was a lot of money," his wife remembered. "I begged," Mata said. "That was our savings."
As I listened to Mata describe the past few years of his life in exacting detail, I found myself struggling to understand his motivation. There had been many lows, those days of bouncing around Asia with little more than a desire to be in the same time zone with his sons to steady him. He had left his American life behind, save for the football he brought with him from country to country. I gazed out the window as Mata and his wife described the disappointment of discovering that they weren't going to get reimbursed for the equipment; worse yet, a school official pressured Mata to donate it all back to the school. Mata refused, and his after-school program was terminated. "Now I'm sitting at home with 25 sets of gear in my bedroom and no team. I had to do something because my wife was pretty upset. We have all this gear — and nothing."
Eventually, Mata and his wife just decided to start their own team — the Sea Dragons. They did a remarkable job of recruiting more and more kids, enough for three different teams. There are between 40 and 50 kids in the Sea Dragons at any time. As the Sea Dragons program has grown, rivals have emerged. It's a story I heard many times. Teams seem to constantly spin out of one another, oftentimes because the quality of play isn't do-or-die intense enough for the expats. Wu mentioned a "huge rivalry" developing between the Nighthawks — who remain about 60 percent local — and a newer, expat-dominated team started by some of their former players. The expat teams are usually wealthier and always far more competitive. The same thing has happened at the youth level. Mata mentioned one former Sea Dragons coach who broke away after growing frustrated with their bilingual approach. His voice softened as he recalled one particularly testy game when one of his kids suffered a shattered collarbone. "I regret playing that game," he sighed. It made me wonder exactly what — beyond this "teamwork" concept — football was bringing to China.
Families roared by outside with carts full of groceries, and the afternoon traffic was thickening. China is the new land of opportunity, where some language skill, an idea, and a little familiarity with how things work can get you pretty far. People come to China hoping to find themselves or new riches, a chance at a fresh start, maybe a different pace of life. But they don't do this. They don't spend their life savings on shoulder pads and helmets. They don't turn their apartment into a warehouse, spend their nights drawing up plays and designing logos. They don't devote their weekends to running drills along Guyang Road, in the hopes that kids passing by might be curious enough to join them. They don't spend their time proselytizing on behalf of football's virtues to Chinese parents, because maybe your son will begin to see his horizons differently. That's generally not the kind of opportunity you come here seeking.
"I have one last question," I interrupted. Mata was talking about the future: their fall schedule, an upcoming exhibition against a team from Moscow, the possibility of representing China in the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) tournament in 2014. The sport is growing, he proclaimed, and there are teams forming throughout China and beyond — Hong Kong, Tianjin, Kazakhstan, there's a rumor that the upstart Fudan University team is coed. But I wanted to know more about Mata and his wife, and why they've committed themselves to this unusual path. "This is a tough thing you two have decided to do. What is your motivation?"
Mata and his wife looked at each other, as though they'd never thought to stop and really think about this. "I'll let my wife answer that," he started.
"I was never a football fan as a Chinese," she started slowly. She stared at the mugs of coffee and croissants on the table, choosing her words carefully. She grew up in a small village in southwestern China, where all of this — from the Sea Dragons to Shanghai itself — was unimaginable. "He introduced American football to me and I started to watch the games. It was fun. But I never had passion for this. The reason I did this was because I was the only one he got to support him, to really help him. He's alone in China. He has no family here. I had to."
Her sacrifices have been superhuman. Mata listened carefully as she spoke. "Is the program still fun for you?" I asked.
"It's fun but also stressful. There are some fun moments," she explained, "when all the work you have done is worth it."
The question of when they will be done hangs in the air. It does for everyone. There's no ultimate endpoint for Young and NFL China, no single thing that will signify a resounding success. In the short term, they hope to work with people like Mata and Wu to organize the dozens of teams scattered throughout China into a league. This will pave the way for Chinese teams to compete in things like the IFAF World Cup or the Flag Football World Championship. After that: Anything is possible. A top-10 sport in China's major cities — Young and his team seem too smart to fail at that goal. There could be a Chinese owner — it almost makes too much sense. Maybe Long Ding or some other Chinese player makes it to the NFL. Maybe one night a kid from Shanghai named Shady lines up in the slot for some second-tier college football team, and a thousand teenagers back at home decide that it's the coolest thing they've ever seen. "When you're one in a million," Young reminded me about China, "there's 1,300 just like you."
Despite support from the NFL — advertising, sponsored events, some merchandise — grassroots teams like the Sea Dragons and the Nighthawks remain self-financed (and self-rationalized) labors of love. For Mata and Wu, it's not about making money or reenacting some kind of bygone gridiron glory. Wu estimated he'll stay in Shanghai for at least another decade to ensure that football is here to stay. "I get the sense [my family and friends] feel it's a waste of my time," he later wrote me in an e-mail, but he wants to see it through. His teammates might not end up in the NFL, they might never set foot in America, but they will at least learn something about themselves and what it means to be a part of a team. "It's my calling. I don't want to let my countries down."
Back at the café, Mata told me that some of the kids from the combine a couple weeks back have already gotten interest from American colleges. His sons lived with him now in Shanghai, and one of them received a letter from a Division I school. "We got letters of interest for Kevin," he said proudly, and I think about that Mohawk bobbing through the airport in Memphis when he arrives there for a regional combine in June. Mata and his wife have agreed to rethink the proportion of their lives consumed by the Sea Dragons in a few years, once Winston and the rest of the original Sea Dragons graduate from high school. The possibility that football might help their kids pursue opportunities in America: This is what keeps the Matas afloat. It's almost perverse that the thing Mata wants most is for his children to find a life in the place he himself had to leave. To close the loop that began when he left Texas. They will renew his faith in the promise that eluded him.
"American dream," Mata said. "Made in China."