China's ‘Friday Night Lights’: Chinese youth tackle American football

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.

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.

“Lisa is much more confidant and much more brave after playing football,” said her father, Li Ning. (Elias Glenn/Reuters)

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Player getting tackled

Friends and relatives watch an Eagles training session of the Future League American football youth league team in Beijing, May 28, 2017. 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 NFL. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Eagles player having shoelaces tied

An Eagles player has his shoelaces tied before he plays the Sharklets in a Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Girl listening to father before playing

Lisa Li, 9, of the Eagles listens to her father before she plays the Sharklets in their Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Woman wiping face of Eagles player

A woman wipes the face of an Eagles player during a training session of the Future League American football youth league team in Beijing, May 28, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Players facing off at line of scrimmage

The Sharklets (in blue jerseys) play the Eagles in a Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Sharklets defend against run

A Sharklets player attemps a tackle against an Eagles running play during their Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Adults taking photos of game

Friends and relatives take pictures a Future League American football youth league match between the Sharklets and the Eagles in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Eagles player celebrating

An Eagles player celebrates during a training session of the Future League American football youth league team in Beijing, May 28, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Adults applauding player

Adults applaud a Sharklets player after his team was defeated by the Eagles during their Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Eagles coach Ivan Vitkovskyi addressing team

Eagles coach Ivan Vitkovskyi talks to his team before their Future League American football youth league match against the Sharklets in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Lisa Li running for touchdown

Lisa Li, 9, of the Eagles runs to score a touchdown against the Sharklets during their Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Lisa Li post-game interview

Lisa Li, 9, of the Eagles gives a post-game interview after her team defeated the Sharklets in their Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Sharklets player reacting during game

A Sharklets player reacts as he plays the Eagles during their Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Eagles player leaving field

An Eagles player leaves the field after his team defeated the Sharklets in the Future League American football youth league in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Players celebrating win

Eagles players celebrate their win over the Sharklets in their Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Players consoled by adults

Adults console players of the Sharklets after they lost to the Eagles in their Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Eagles players celebrating victory

Eagles players celebrate after they defeated the Sharklets in a Future League American football youth league match in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Eagles players taking break during game

Eagles players rest during a break in their Future League American football youth league match against the Sharklets in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Eagles player rests before game

An Eagles player rests before a game against the Sharklets in the Future League American football youth league in Beijing, May 26, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)