Confessions of a Chinese 12th man

Mariah Zhao (second from left) and other members of a Chinese 12th man meet up group muster smiles after watching the Seahawks Super Bowl loss in 2015. (Courtesy photo)
Mariah Zhao (second from left) and other members of a Chinese 12th man meet up group muster smiles after watching the Seahawks Super Bowl loss in 2015. (Courtesy photo)

When I decided to leave Shanghai, China and come to America for my education, I knew I’d have a tough choice to make: I’d have to pick a new sports team to support.

I grew up following the Shanghai Sharks basketball team and the Shanghai Shenhua soccer team in my hometown. Soccer and basketball are still probably the most popular spectator sports in China right now (along with classic amateur sports like badminton and ping pong).

I had already watched some American football games before I came to Seattle, and the enthusiasm of local fans was so infectious that it didn’t take long for me to become a diehard 12.

China’s oldest Seahawk fan group

I don’t consider myself a bandwagon fan. But I didn’t know at the time I started following the Seahawks that a group of 12’s in China had been going strong for over 10 years, following the Seahawks through the lows as well as the recent highs.

When I was just a primary student, the first Chinese 12th man chat group, called simply “Seattle Seahawks,” started on QQ, an online chatting software that’s till used by lots of Chinese people today. The group was founded was started by Chai Wan, one of the earliest adopters of American football in China back when the NFL was barely known there.

After awhile, the rare game started showing up on Chinese TV. Usually it was just the Super Bowl, which meant that Chinese fans could only watch one game a year. The first game I watched was Super Bowl XLIV between the Colts and the Saints. I knew almost nothing about football at that time, but the onside kick at the beginning of the second half was amazing. I was hooked.

At the same time, NFL started to pay more attention to the promotion in China. In 2013-14 season, the word “football” became more and more popular on Chinese social media, just as the Seahawks were reaching the Super Bowl for the second time in team history.

A little taste of what Chinese Seahawks chat forums look like.
A little taste of what Chinese Seahawks chat forums look like.

We all know what happened in Super Bowl XLVIII, and that sweep helped developed a new group of new Seahawks fans.

After I became a diehard 12, I started connecting with other Chinese Seahawks fans via Touchdown League, another NFL chat group. The Chinese chat groups cover pretty much the same topics as American fans would. We have diverse members who love different players. We talk about the game, the roster, the gossip about players. Of course these days everyone is talking about the draft. The interactions are just that much more comfortable because I get to have them in my mother tongue.

The Chinese 12th man family

After the Super Bowl win, the online chat group started by Chai Wan finally became a community that existed offline as well.

Mariah Zhao, a Seahawks fan who lived in Redmond for a time before moving back to China started the offline 12s community in Beijing in late 2014.

“It was too sudden a cool down from the football fever in Seattle after that Super Bowl championship, to my football-less surrounding in Beijing. I knew there must be 12s out there and was eager to find them.” she said. “In the very first meet-up there were only two of us… It was in a restaurant that features American football and BBQ. We watched the 16th week ARI @ SEA game and it started from there.”

The Seahawks community in China is not just fans like Zhao who have spent time in Seattle. It also has home-grown fans like Quan Zeqiang. I met Zeqiang when I was interning in Beijing last summer. He is a native Beijinger, but he also has the Seahawks swagger, sporting a Russell Wilson jersey.

The group also includes expats like Michael Cooper who is from Idaho. He can speak fluent Chinese and he is working for NFL’s promotion efforts in China. Then there’s Will (he is Chinese), a diehard Ravens fan whose second favorite team is Seahawks, and who works is a commentator of LeTV (the Chinese NFL platform).

“We host travelling 12s.” said Zhao points out, “Deming is a Seahawks season ticket holder and was on a business trip to Beijing when the ‘Hawks battled the Panthers in the NFC divisional game [in the 2014-15 season]. He brought his 12s flag with him and we had our first 12s flag group photo together after the win.”

Another player, screen name Valnetts travelled, all the way from Guangzhou to Beijing to watch Super Bowl XLIV together with the group, Zhao recalls.

“It turned out to be heartbreaking, but we were tough enough to take another 12s flag group photo together, even after the loss,” she said.

Chinese players take on Finland in the first American Football World University championship in 2014. (Photo from Youtube)
Chinese players take on Finland in the first American Football World University championship in 2014. (Photo from Youtube)

An up-and-coming sport

American football is still a minority sport in China, but it’s growing fast. Lots of cities have their own football teams now, and there are three in Shanghai. The live broadcasting of NFL also exist on two media websites: Youku and LeTV, who have bought the copyrights to broadcast NFL games. As the hottest team in NFL in recent years, the Seahawks have among the top three biggest followings in China.

So there you have it. The 12th man is strong even in China — it’s like a big family welcoming all people from around the world to jump on the Seahawks bandwagon.

“Being part of this 12s community in China is one of the best things I’ve done in my life.” said Mariah. “It is also a part of me that ties my life in Seattle and Beijing together.”

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