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Local American football team's big challenge: promoting the sport

2018/10/29 18:34:14

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

On a sunny Saturday afternoon on the soccer field of Taipei's Tianmu Sports Park, a Taipei-based amateur American football team once again showed that its toughest opponent may be Taiwan's lack of familiarity with the sport rather than any of its opponents.

The Taipei Predators, Taiwan's first full gear American football team, overwhelmed a visiting team from China, the Beijing Cyclones, 43-0, to complete its 2018 season in the "City Bowl" of China with a perfect 4-0 record.

It was quite an achievement considering that the Predators were founded in early 2015 as a flag football team, a simplified version of the sport with no tackling and no need for the cumbersome pads and helmets, and was competing for the first time in the "City Bowl."

The 2018 City Bowl consisted of 33 teams from 30 cities across Greater China region. This year's competition divided the teams into two groups, A and B, using a differentiated ranking system depending on each team's schedule and opponents.

Because it went undefeated in Group B, the Taipei team can automatically advance to the higher-tier Group A matches next season.

This on-the-field success, however, has yet to translate to off-the-field recognition. The Predators' only home game of the season Saturday concluding its perfect season was witnessed by no more than 300 fans.

Yet it was a start for promoting a game that is wildly popular in the United States but rarely televised and something of a mystery to most people in Taiwan, who rarely have a chance to see on TV.

"This is our first and only home game this season, and we tried to reach out to the community," Predators captain Adam Mathias told CNA after his team whitewashed the team from Beijing.

Mathias, a native of Idaho who played football in high school and has also competed as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter, moved to Taiwan three years ago to work as a researcher at a cancer research center.

He said he found out about the Predators in 2016, and decided to join the team to share his knowledge and passion for the game with Taiwanese and help the sport grow locally.

The team has grown steadily and it now has 47 players, with the youngest 17 and the oldest 45. Ten of them are foreign nationals or American-born ethnic Taiwanese.

They come from many backgrounds and include a sushi chef and software engineers. They are brought together by their passion for the game.

"They deserved it (the win)," Mathias said.

To the Predators, building interest in American football in Taiwan may be just as important as winning a title, which is why at halftime cheerleaders put on a show and fans were given a chance to kick a football from a tee.

A long line of fans, including many young children, tried kicking the ball, and for many of them, it was the first time they actually touched an American football.

"We try to reach out to the community. We try to promote football and promote the team," Mathias said.

Before Saturday's win, the Taipei-based team had won three consecutive road games, all of them were commanding victories over the Wenzhou Redbucks, Guiyang Jungle Fighters and Shenzhen Buffaloes.

The team's outstanding run in the City Bowl has gradually given the Taipei team some recognition among American football fans across the Taiwan Strait.

According to Andy Chou (周桓生), the team's PR manager, the growing success of the team has made it easier to find sponsors and a permanent location to practice, never a given considering that there is no qualified American football field in Taiwan.

Early on, team members had to get up early every Sunday to claim the field of Taipei's Tianmu Sports Park under the care of the University of Taipei's Tianmu Campus to make sure they could hold their four-hour practice.

Now they have reached a consensus with school authorities to let the team make use of the field every Sunday.

They also managed to find sponsors to support their overseas travel for games in China. Their previous lack of sponsorship meant they had to pay for these away games themselves, a huge burden for the players.

Looking forward to next year, team captain Mathias said the Predators have yet to make up their mind whether to compete in the Group A of City Bowl or join another amateur American football league in China, a decision that will depend on travel considerations and access to games.

But either way, he has full confidence his team will perform well whatever the competition.

"I expect the team to win by a huge margin every time we step on the field. I expect to play like that (every game)," he said with confidence.