Despite American football not being an Olympic sport, the NFL has been gaining traction in the huge Chinese market.
NFL teams have already played three games in London as part of this season’s International Series. This week’s Monday Night Football game is scheduled to be played under the lights of Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Mexico, featuring the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders in the NFL’s first regular season game in Mexico since 2005. Much has changed in the sports landscape since 2005, however. Not only has the NFL experienced healthy growth domestically, but they have also continued to expand their popularity internationally.
This week’s game in Mexico City is not only a huge step toward the NFL increasing their presence in Mexico; it is also a major stepping stone toward the NFL playing games in other international cities. As Arturo Olivé, NFL Mexico’s general director, said, “We’re tremendously excited, not only for this game but for the future of the sport in Mexico. … By every measure, we are seeing tremendous growth.” The return of the NFL to Mexico is a momentous development that should pave the way for the league to do the same in other countries.
The NFL has been playing regular season games in London ever since 2007, when the New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins 13-10 in the first-ever NFL game played outside of North America. There have been three NFL games played in London each season since 2014, as there has been sustained interest in the game from British fans.
Nine years ago, before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, the NFL was scheduled to play a game in China. The game was called off, however, as the league faced logistical issues, and realized they lacked a significant Chinese fanbase. Attempting to host an NFL game in China before developing a strong local interest in the game would have been a tragic misstep. The NFL had to take care and ensure that they were not hastily managing their entry into the world’s largest potential market.
In looking for a blueprint of how to grow the popularity of an international sports league in China, one need not look any further than the NBA.
In 1987, then-Commissioner David Stern took a risk in giving China Central Television (CCTV) NBA content to broadcast for free. Fast forward nearly 30 years and basketball is the clear, undisputed leader among the foreign professional sports available to the Chinese public. In 2012, it was estimated that roughly 300 million people in China play basketball.
The NBA isn’t the only professional sports entertainment available for consumption in China; the Chinese Basketball Association and the Chinese Super League (soccer) are the most prevalent professional domestic sports leagues. Soccer is still the country’s most popular spectator sport.
Despite China’s well-documented sense of nationalism, other international leagues are beginning to gain stronger footholds in the Chinese sports entertainment market. For the 2007 NBA All-Star Game, neither LeBron James nor Kobe Bryant received the most fan votes. It was in fact Yao Ming who led in fan voting. Yao, at 7’ 6”, became the first Chinese-born athlete to succeed in the NBA as he was drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets in 2002. Yao’s success in the NBA was the catalyst for the league’s prosperity in China.
Unfortunately for the NFL, there are no Chinese-born professional football players. While Yao’s success in the NBA provided the league unprecedented access to Chinese fans, the NFL has had to create awareness and develop a fanbase the hard way. Through marketing and promotional events, the NFL has managed to grow from 1.6 million fans in 2010 to 17.7 million in 2014. One such event was ‘NFL Home Field’, which spanned two cities, 17 days, and reached 260,000 potential NFL fans.
Across 23 different broadcast platforms in China, there were 109 million viewers of NFL content in 2015. In an interview with Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, he said, “the time difference is such that really only Thursday Night, Sunday Night and Monday Night football is at a good time for live viewing but even so we get almost 1.5 million people viewing our games every week.”
The time difference, which can be between 12 and 16 hours, is bound to hurt the NFL’s live viewership in China. They have worked to combat the issue by making games available on-demand and sharing highlights online.
Earlier this year, retired star quarterback Peyton Manning traveled to China to promote the NFL and engage with fans. He visited the Great Wall and Forbidden City in Beijing, and the Bund in Shanghai. He also participated in fan forums and ran clinics, working with young Chinese talents.
Manning isn’t the first NFL player to visit China recently. Over the past few years, San Francisco 49ers legends Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, and former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, and Troy Polamalu have all visited China to promote the NFL and engage with fans.
The league expects that by 2018, they will make their long-overdue China debut. In 2007, they did not believe they had a strong enough fanbase in China to warrant all that would go into hosting a game halfway around the world. By 2018, however, they believe that it will not only be possible, but worth it. The Los Angeles Rams are expected to be one of the teams to play in the 2018 China game. There are still a lot of details — big and small — that need to be sorted out, but the fact that they are finally ready to move forward says a lot about how much the NFL has grown in China over the last decade.
When asked what gives him the confidence that the NFL will succeed in China, Young said that “It is the quality of the product.” In his experience, “Good products win out over time. While every sport has great moments, the NFL gives you the most consistent return on your investment of free time.”
In his two decades spent in Asia, Young has seen that “The best products always have a place.” About the NFL specifically, he said, “I don’t think coffee is going to overtake tea in China and I don’t see us overtaking soccer anytime soon but it doesn’t mean that Starbucks and the NFL can’t have a good business in China.”
Holding the NFL back in China is the fact that American football is not an Olympic sport. “Not being an Olympic sport limits the government support in international markets for development of American football,” Young said. Prior to the 1990s, sports in China were government-funded. As a result, some of the country’s most popular sports include high-diving, table tennis, and badminton.
For a long time, the country’s favorite sports weren’t being televised for their entertainment value — rather their patriotic symbolism. American football’s non-inclusion in the Olympics “also limits the visibility of country vs. country competitions, leaving many people to believe that it is only played in the USA,” said Young. “There is a bit more freedom for grass roots league development in not being an Olympic sport but it hardly outweighs the downsides of not being an Olympic sport.”
Recently, there have been attempts to take advantage of that upside, developing grass roots football leagues in China. However, the level of play is nowhere near that of the US, or even Europe. Ken Li, who founded China’s American Football Union, said, “If we put the best players in China on an all-star team, the level might be similar to a Division III team in the NCAA. That gives you the best-case scenario of what we’re seeing here.” Recently, a video of China Arena Football League celebrations went viral, leading many to laud them as the anti-‘No Fun League’.
Ultimately, the presence of American football in China will be predominantly as entertainment, not as a sport to be played by the masses. The NFL faces an uphill battle, but as they have shown in their ability to penetrate the soccer-crazed Mexican market, they are up to the challenge. Their fanbase has grown exponentially since the cancelled 2007 event that ignited the NFL’s effort to develop fans in China. While American football isn’t likely to overtake basketball or soccer any time soon in China, there certainly is room to grow in the country’s vast entertainment market.
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