Hard Knocks: Shanghai
Hua Hsu
May 2, 2013

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...
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