Football's Far East Division

September 01, 2014

Earlier this month, while you were so busy preparing for your NFL fantasy draft that you forgot to wear pants to work, a new football league formed in China. It's not real football, just the Arena League version, but the size of the field does not matter when you experience the thrill of watching someone score a touchdown while tearing his ACL. It's only right that we set up football in China. We owe the Chinese something for sending us all those fun toys that stop working after a few years, like plastic trains and Yao Ming.

I was hoping they would call the Chinese league the CFL, raising tensions with Canada, but they instead went with the China American Football League—proof that, no matter their racial and geographical differences, people will always choose the most boring possible name for a sports league. The CAFL is being launched by Martin E. Judge Jr., co-owner of the Arena Football League's Philadelphia Soul, in conjunction with the Chinese Rugby Football Association. The league hopes to kick off next August with six to eight teams comprising both Chinese and American players. (All of those clubs are currently in discussions with Brett Favre.) More teams will be added in the next few years, and organizers are optimistic that by 2020, dozens of Chinese arenas will be filled with fans ignoring the game in front of them as they monitor their fantasy teams on their phones.

It's nice that the Chinese will finally get football, but will they actually get football? Will they understand its appeal? Will they marvel at Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady? Will they pretend to understand illegal shifts and the pass interference rules? Will they see why true football fans debate who should be the Browns' next starting quarterback, even though they can't remember the Browns' last starting quarterback?

To Americans, football is like a picture of our kids. People in other countries might ask to see it, pretend they are interested, maybe even genuinely admire it. But we are the ones whose hearts swell. Football's concussion crisis has proved to be less a crisis than a reaffirmation of football's popularity. We may occasionally be turned off by the spectacle on the field, but the TV never is. Sometimes we try to quit football, but we always forget the reason. Perhaps this is why so many NFL players take Adderall.

The game's popularity is bulletproof, lawsuit-proof, even market-proof. On Sept. 4 the opening game of the season will pit Green Bay (the nation's 70th-largest TV market) against Seattle (No. 13), and it will still be one of the highest-rated programs of the year. For 20 years the NFL has ignored Los Angeles, the nation's second-most-populous city, and business is just fine, thank you.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently opined that the NFL is "10 years away from an implosion," which, if true, would make for an awesome TV show. Imagine the whole league bursting into a million pieces, with cheeseheads going one way, Bill Belichick's hoodie going another and Richard Sherman's mouth flying through the prime-time sky, chattering away.

Cuban thinks the NFL is playing games on too many days of the week—we're now up to Sunday, Monday, Thursday and sometimes Saturday. If the NFL ends up playing games on all seven days, it's only because Roger Goodell does not have the power to create an eighth. The NFL commissioner would like to expand the season to 18 games, which is a lousy idea, and put a team in London, which is a worse idea, and expand the playoffs, which is also a pretty bad idea but will probably happen next season. We can complain about a diluted football product, but we will still inject it into our veins.

The people of China may or may not share our addiction. Football is not for everybody, and it may be telling that we in the U.S. are obsessed with the sport while most of the world is obsessed with others. Some foreigners would say it's because we're self-involved and oblivious to the rest of the planet, but who cares what they think? It's football season, baby. Let's show all those soccer players what happens when a man is actually hit before he falls down.

It's nice that the people of China will finally get football. But will they actually get football the way obsessive U.S. fans do?

Can arena football succeed in China?

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PHOTOCARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)