In the early days, before he spoke Chinese and with little clue where it would lead, Zach Brown printed up a business card. Translated from Chinese, it read:
“I play American football. You look like a dude who could play. Contact us here.”
Brown, now 29, was a former Division I player working in the international business world. He loved football and wanted to keep playing while based in Shanghai, but he also understood the potential for growth in the world’s most populated nation. Brown and another former college player, Chris McLaurin, formed the American Football League of China and began recruiting players — handing out Chinese business cards to one big dude at a time.
Today, the AFLC includes about 1,000 players on 16 teams throughout China, the most significant league in a country that now counts about 5,000 men and women playing some level of tackle football. It is a small number relative to China’s population of 1.35 billion, but almost all of it has grown in the past five years and is part of a larger movement — supported in some cases by the NFL, but unknown by most Americans — to spread what is perceived to be a uniquely American game around the globe.
The emergence of German wide receiver Moritz Boehringer, the first player to be drafted into the NFL directly from a European league (sixth round, Minnesota Vikings), will bring a new level of attention. But for the moment, at least, international football is a world of football-industrial diplomacy where long-term health concerns and NFL-related cynicism have not yet descended.
According to the International Federation of American Football, there are 80 countries with organized federations governing the game, from China to Germany to South Africa. Overall, IFAF’s best estimate is that there are thousands of leagues and hundreds of thousands of boys, girls, men and women playing at levels ranging from high school to soccer-like club leagues powered by player dues and local sponsors. China’s leagues received a boost recently when the NFL acknowledged plans to stage a game there in 2018. The country also will host the world under-19 championship this summer at Harbin University of Commerce, in the Heilongjiang province of northeast China.
Boehringer’s entry into the draft mix, meanwhile, was a reminder of the steadily increasing level of play in Europe. It’s still nowhere close to the NFL, and it will be a while — if ever — before international prospects feed the NFL talent pool on a regular basis. But it is growing at a rate worth watching from afar.
“I don’t think people back home understand how tied America and football are,” Brown said. “Football is so inherent in our culture. But the more the game spreads outside of it, the better. Everywhere I go in China, people just love football, and a big part of it is that it’s American.
“It’s good for American business, too, and not just the NFL. The more popular football is, the more sales you have for their companies like Nike and Under Armor. It’s good for American business and for portraying a positive impact of the country outside the U.S., and that’s because these guys love playing so much. It’s very rewarding to introduce it to them.”
While Brown was handing out Chinese-language business cards on the streets of Shanghai, Ken Li was putting 33 years of western living into action.
A Chinese national, Li lived and worked throughout the U.S. and Canada before returning in 2011, in the process growing into an NFL fan while also noticing the regional success of the CFL across the border. Back in China, he formed the American Football Union and began working to bring football to the high school and college levels. As Brown did with the AFLC, Li used American coaching consultants to teach rules and schemes to what proved an eager audience.
“I just thought it was a great game,” Li said from Beijing. “The sportsmanship, teamwork and discipline of it all appeal here, I think.”
And so does, of course, the potential for business. In America, the NFL’s annual revenues have reached $13 billion. It’s attempting to grow that number to $25 billion by 2027, and China’s vast resources and population offer an obvious market. The league has staffed a marketing office in China for a decade, and Li is hopeful of drawing 10,000 people for this summer’s under-19 championships.
It’s once again a small number for a country so large, and most games in China draw no more than 5,000 fans. But the sport’s five-year growth from almost nothing is notable, and a new television-friendly arena league is scheduled to debut in the fall.
A glance at YouTube videos of Chinese games reveals familiar plays and rhythm but a decidedly smaller set of players. Brown said the average lineman in the AFLC weighs 250 pounds.
“It’s a smaller game,” Brown said, “but there are some big dudes here. We just need time to find them.”
Ultimately, the endgame of staging Chinese football leagues could be to enhance curiosity about the NFL. Consider that two countries with long histories of American football, the United Kingdom and Mexico, will draw more than 350,000 to four NFL regular-season games they host in 2016.
“People in China have so much interest in the NFL,” Li said. “And it has become very accessible, either watching games on the web or sometimes on TV. And there’s been a lot more interest of late in playing, but that will take a long time to develop. There is no comparison to the NFL at all. I always say that if we put the best players in China on an all-star team, the level might be similar to a Division III in the NCAA. That gives you the best-case scenario of what we’re seeing here.”
Spanning the globe
As operators of American Football International, Roger Kelly and John McKeon might be the world’s top authorities on American football abroad. Their website exists at the intersection of promoting the game, covering results for interested fans and serving as a first contact for scouts — including some from NFL teams — seeking leads or information. Kelly, a former CFL executive, works from Sweden and McKeon from New York City.
The highest-level international football outside of America or Canada is played in Germany and Austria, Kelly said. McKeon, who has played club-level football in France, compared the collective European squad to “lower-level Division I or Division II” in the United States.
“That’s the type of competition it is at the moment,” McKeon said. “These teams practice every day and have some standout skill players, but the overall size and speed of these teams is less than a top-level Division I program.”
Mexico, whose long history with American football dates to 1896, fields competitive national teams and is one of two countries besides the U.S. — along with Canada — with a true professional league that pays players enough to make it their full-time jobs during the season. Japan, meanwhile, has a competitive corporate entity known as the X League, made up of teams of players from the companies where they work. Japan’s national team has advanced to the finals of the quadrennial IFAF World Championship in four of the past five tournaments. (The 2015 title went to the U.S., which has won each of the three times it has competed.)
The under-19 championship in China will include teams from Canada, Mexico, Australia, Austria, Japan and China, according to Li.
From a participation standpoint, the United Kingdom has surpassed all other countries/regions along a timeframe roughly parallel to the NFL’s increased regular-season presence there. NFL teams will play three games in London in 2016, two at Wembley Stadium and one at Twickenham Stadium. Internal NFL numbers count 13 million NFL/American football fans in the U.K., and four million U.K. residents tuned in to watch Super Bowl 50, according to the NFL’s U.K. office. According to Kelly, registered players in the U.K. doubled to 50,000 between 2011 and 2014. There are roughly 35,000 registered players in Germany and about 23,000 in France.
Local U.K. games average between 5,000 and 10,000 fans in attendance. Teams in Brazil, another country the NFL has targeted for a possible game, record wild fan interest. In some cases, according to Kelly, they’re challenging established club soccer teams with 15,000 fans per game. The Corinthian Steamrollers, founded in 2004 and based in Sao Paulo, boast more than 1.4 million likes on their Facebook page.
The politics of the IFAF — it doesn’t recognize all national federations, and not all federations recognize it — makes an accurate world-wide count of participation difficult. So does the churn of progress. In South Africa, organizers held an April training camp to gauge interest and skill level for a proposed new league. In recent weeks, Kelly and McKeon have received calls from interested parties in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Nairobi — all asking for advice on how to start a tackle football league.
NCAA/NFL talent pipeline
Participation aside, the more relevant question for stateside fans might be whether international players can ever supplement the NFL talent pool. Sports fans of a certain age remember the NBA’s European infusion in the 1980s — Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Arvydas Sabonis and others — and wonder if it could happen in football. International players now represent 20 percent of NBA players and 25 percent of those in Major League Baseball, according to roster analysis performed within the past year by both leagues.
“The biggest difference right now is the size and speed of players in Europe and elsewhere,” McKeon said. “You’re just starting to see the level of coaching and physical training rising with some of these top-end teams. That will slowly close the gap for the biggest obstacle that is holding back some of these players. The floodgate isn’t going to open, but you’ll slowly see guys like Boehringer getting noticed and getting a chance.”
“In terms of the NFL, players are one thing, but in terms of fan base, as more football happens here, and more fans become educated, you’ll see it grow more from an entertainment standpoint than maybe as a player pool.”
Zach Brown, American Football League of China co-founder
At the moment, the number of international players in the NFL is so miniscule the league doesn’t officially track it. Before last week’s draft, Pro Football Reference’s database counted 23 players who attended high school outside of the United States, about 0.9 percent of the total players on offseason rosters. More than half (12) were from Canada. At least one such player has been drafted in nine of the past 10 years.
According to the most recently available NCAA statistics, meanwhile, there were 260 players across all divisions — 0.4 percent — from international high schools during the 2014-15 season. Again, Canada was by far the most common. The conclusion? The NFL isn’t close to receiving an NBA-like international talent infusion.
“The big thing is we need time to mine out the guys,” the AFLC’s Brown said from China. “Football is getting bigger, but it has a long way to grow to become something the NFL can get players from.
“I could see not far from now that there will be some [more] Division I players. In terms of the NFL, players are one thing, but in terms of fan base, as more football happens here, and more fans become educated, you’ll see it grow more from an entertainment standpoint than maybe as a player pool.”
For now, the international football movement is growing despite stateside concerns about long-term health of players’ brains and bodies. Put bluntly: How much do international players know about the risks associated with tackle football?
The IFAF has a formal partnership with USA Football, the NFL’s amateur outreach arm. That makes the Heads Up Football training program available to any national federation that joins, and many leagues import American coaches and consultants to help establish modern techniques.
But implementation is a local and often individual choice. In China, Brown said his league uses both USA Football guidelines and also teaches the Seattle Seahawks‘ “Hawk Tackle” approach, which allows players to practice safe tackling even in shorts and T-shirts.
“We get to set the standards and norms for our league,” Brown said. “But some of the obscure cities out there, they might not have that kind of coaching. But they have players who want to play, and that’s what they’re going to do. It can be a little dangerous. All you can do is try to impart as much knowledge as possible. A lot of people want to play this game.”
After all, there are plenty of big dudes out there, in every corner of the globe, whether you realize it or not.