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NFL Goes Long on China


By Eric Fish

Since America’s National Football League (NFL) first established a Beijing office in 2007, it’s struggled to bring American Football to the Chinese market.

In 2008, the league cancelled a planned exhibition game in Shanghai between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks on worries of turnout being embarrassingly low. Since then, the NFL’s China efforts have settled on a more grassroots approach.

On Sept 8, the second annual “NFL Experience” was held in Beijing with former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart and some Patriots cheerleaders to greet the 4,000 people in attendance. The crowd - largely made up of expats - went through activity booths and watched exhibition matches between local football clubs.

“One team will kick the ball and then they’ll hit each other,” an announcer explained over the PA system just before kickoff between the Shanghai Nighthawks and Beijing Cyclones.  

The NFL has tried to bolster public participation in the sport since 2008 by setting up 36 flag football teams in universities across Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. And over the past two years, five major adult tackle clubs have sprung up in the country – four of which faced off at the NFL Experience. While their rosters are still mostly filled by expats, Chinese are gradually beginning to fill out the ranks.

“It’s going to take a while [for the sport to catch on],” said Casey Pierce, an American player on the Shanghai Warriors. “In Chinese culture people are raised to be very courteous to each other and football is very violent. Maybe in the next 7 to 10 years it’ll start to take off.”

The NFL’s efforts have drawn plenty of scoffs from international observers skeptical that the complicated and violent game can ever gain traction in the country.

NFL China Managing Director Richard Young responded to this skepticism by comparing American football to red wine. “Not everybody’s going to like it,” he said “But it’s a complex drink in the same way this is a complex sport. We don’t believe it’s a cultural difference as to why [American football] is so popular in the US and not here.”

He pointed to the fact that football is the number one sport among nearly every demographic in the US – male, female, rich, poor, urban, rural. “It can’t be a cultural difference coming over here,” he said. “There’s a traditional difference, no question, but it’s just a matter of time and marketing on our part.”

The league went from airing games on four TV stations in China two years ago to 19 regional and national channels this season. It’s also signed deals with online broadcasters like PPTV, QQ Sports and Sina Sports. The league reported 281 percent year-on-year growth in TV viewership last year to reach a total of 80 million Chinese viewers over the season; while there was 400 percent growth online totaling 3.9 million viewers.

Jiang Lin, a 25-year-old bank employee from Jiangxi Province, sat in the bleachers watching the Nighthawks-Cyclones match after her boyfriend brought her to the event. It was her first time to ever view the sport. “The rules are really complicated,” she said. “I get distracted easily and then don’t know what’s going on at all.”

She said the game was “kind of interesting” though and that she could envision watching on TV if she came across it channel surfing. When asked if she thought the NFL could ever be successful in China, she replied, “Maybe.”

But the young Chinese men showing up in Patriots jerseys and the kids lining up to catch passes from Kordell Stewart perhaps gave a more optimistic outlook for an NFL niche in the country.

As far as another go at an exhibition game between two NFL teams in China, Richard Young said the league isn’t in any hurry. “We’re not going to hold a game just to hold a game,” he said.

He says other leagues have done so just to say they’ve been in China, which makes news back home but doesn’t have much significance in China itself. “When we do a game, we’ll do it when we have a big enough fan base,” he said. “But we don’t want to do it just to tick a box. That’s not a wise strategy.”



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