BEIJING (Reuters) - A pint-sized running back takes a handoff and scrambles across the goal line, spiking the football for a last-minute win. It could be any school field in America, but on a warm spring night in Beijing the star of the game is nine-year-old Lisa Li, one of the best players in China’s first American football youth league.
“I was so excited. Before I ran for the winning touchdown I thought to myself I just had to score,” Li said as her Eagles celebrated a come-from-behind 24-20 victory over the Sharklets.
Li plays running back and linebacker in the 16-team Future League run by GSG Sport, a Beijing company promoting America’s most popular game to parents seeking a new sport for children.
American football lags far behind soccer and basketball in China, but the huge potential market of 1.4 billion people has caught the attention of the National Football League.
This year’s Super Bowl championship was streamed live for the first time in China, where 1.5 million mostly young fans watch weekly NFL games on digital platforms.
NFL stars are pitching in to help build the fan base. Tom Brady, a five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, will visit Beijing and the commercial hub of Shanghai later in June.
GSG initially wanted to set up an adult league, but spotted the youth niche five years ago, said co-founder Michael Jin. Today it has 5,000 players whose parents spend between $1,700 and $3,000 annually for training, uniforms and equipment. Parents like football because it stresses discipline, team skills and exposes their pre-teen children to a new culture.
“A lot of parents think football is actually the essence of American culture,” Jin said.
At a recent Friday night game, a father cheering for his son said he appreciated the toughness of the sport. “It’s very manly and the kids like it a lot,” he said.
Parents at the game said they were not overly concerned about the risk of injury, which has fueled a safety debate in the United States.
“They’re not running that fast or hitting that hard,” said one parent, who sought anonymity. “It’s not a big risk.”
To tap a sports industry fueled by rising consumer spending and favorable policies, two Beijing-based funds, Kaixing Capital and Unity Ventures, said they had invested “millions of dollars” in GSG, but gave no specific figures.
Beijing wants to triple the value of China’s sports sector to 5 trillion yuan ($735 billion) by 2025.
Unity investment manager Xu Miaocheng said it was drawn to GSG’s training business model.
“Most sports companies are not very good at generating cash,” he said. “The training sector generates cash.”
GSG has expanded to Shanghai and the eastern city of Hangzhou and will soon open a franchise in eastern Qingdao. It aims to reach 10,000 players in two years.
GSG is not profitable but the funds say they are patient.
“If you get in a hurry and compromise your service, it hurts your reputation,” said Pan Shijian, a partner at Kaixing, which set up a 10-billion-yuan sports fund last year with property developer Kaisa Group.
The one-year old Future League is a key part of GSG’s effort to build its brand.
Taking a page from American high school football, Future League games are held on Friday nights, complete with uniformed referees, cheering fans and a camera crew for post-game interviews.
This year GSG began livestreaming games in partnership with sports media company LeSports, drawing about 200,000 to watch the winning score by the Eagles’ Li against the Sharklets.
“Lisa is much more confident and much more brave after playing football,” said her father, Li Ning.
Editing by Darren Schuettler and Clarence Fernandez