China’s Su­per Bowl view­ers: lit­er­ally Mon­day-morn­ing quar­ter­backs

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

Foot­ball fans can knock back PBR Tall Boys, Coors Gold and, of course, Ts­ing­tao beer at Home Plate BBQ, a South­ern bar­be­cue joint in Bei­jing. The Kerry ho­tels in Bei­jing and Shang­hai, along with the Jing An Shangri-La in Shang­hai, also will be host­ing of­fi­cial NFL Su­per Bowl par­ties.

But the main dif­fer­ence for Su­per Bowl XLIX view­ers in China and their coun­ter­parts in the United States is that they will be watch­ing the game be­tween the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots and the Seat­tle Sea­hawks at 7:30 am on Mon­day. That’s around the same time mil­lions of Amer­i­cans will be fum­bling with alarm clocks.

The time dif­fer­ence is one is­sue the NFL faces in its slow­but-steady ap­proach to build­ing a foot­ball ( gan­lan qiu or “olive ball”) fan base in China, said Richard Young, man­ag­ing direc­tor of NFL China. The num­ber of Amer­i­can foot­ball fans in China has reached 14 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to CSM Kan­tar Re­search.

“Our motto here is to grow for­ever,” Young said in an in­ter­view with China Daily.

How is a foot­ball fan de­fined in China?

It’s some­one who has at least a mod­er­ate in­ter­est in the game. Avid fans, those who ac­tively fol­low a par­tic­u­lar team, num­ber 1 mil­lion. The growth is re­mark­able con­sid­er­ing that in 2010, only 1 mil­lion Chi­nese con­sid­ered them­selves NFL fans.

NFL China, which has had a pres­ence in the coun­try since 2007, this sea­son launched the NFL on Tour truck — a mo­bile au­dio/vis­ual “NFL Ex­pe­ri­ence” that made stops in Shang­hai, Wuxi, Tian­jin, Bei­jing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, Chang­sha and Guangzhou.

NFL games are aired on more than 20 re­gional chan­nels reach­ing more than 96 mil­lion unique view­ers and on five na­tion­wide on­line broad­cast­ers: PPTV, LeTV, iQiyi, Sina Sports and QQ Sports. The NFL said it has more than 220,000 on­line view­ers per live game.

NFL China’s Uni­ver­sity Bowl (flag foot­ball) week­end in Shang­hai drew more than 14,000 and fea­tured an ap­pear­ance by Hall of Fame re­ceiver Jerry Rice.

But NFL China faces the “struc­tural chal­lenge” of not be­ing an Olympic sport, “es­pe­cially when there are time dif­fer­ences”, Young said. He said that the Olympics play a key role in build­ing a fol­low­ing for a sport in any coun­try, and Amer­i­can foot­ball is not in that mix.

There are “al­ways go­ing to be more pa­tri­ots than there are sports fans in any coun­try”, Young said. “That gap’s much larger in coun­tries like China. … When you put the flag on the jer­sey, every­body gets in­ter­ested. Every­body. You get a grow­ing fan base that way.

“It’s a bit of a chicken-andegg thing,” he said. “When you have an Olympic sport, you have cas­cad­ing en­ti­ties (de­vel­op­ing the sport). Con­tact foot­ball doesn’t have a very high fe­male- par­tic­i­pa­tion rate, which is one of the re­quire­ments” for an Olympic sport.

“We don’t have that wind at our back,” Young said. “What we have is … ar­guably the best prod­uct in the sports mar­ket; the one that pro­vides the most re­turn on your in­vest­ment of free time; the one that has the com­plex­ity and the depth that you can talk about and study and learn for your en­tire life­time; the one that when you play it pro­vides benefits of in­ter­de­pen­dence, lead­er­ship, team­work.”

Still, the NFL is steadily in­creas­ing its over­seas reach. Over the years, the league has played games (mostly ex­hi­bi­tions) in Australia, Canada, Eng­land, Ger­many, Ire­land, Ja­pan, Mex­ico, Spain and Swe­den.

Iron­i­cally, an ex­hi­bi­tion game be­tween the Pa­tri­ots and Sea­hawks was planned for Bei­jing’s Work­ers Sta­dium in the sum­mer of 2007 but was ul­ti­mately can­celed be­cause the NFL said it wanted to con­cen­trate its “global re­sources” on a regular-sea­son game in Lon­don the fol­low­ing sea­son.

“I think you’re go­ing to see more ex­pan­sion in the NFL in the fu­ture,” Young said. “In Lon­don, we have three sold­out regular-sea­son games.

“The strat­egy has gone more to­ward hav­ing the real prod­uct, hav­ing the NFL there (in Lon­don),” Young said.

Amer­i­can tackle foot­ball is be­ing played in China right now. There is the Amer­i­can Foot­ball League of China (AFLC) and the China Amer­i­can Foot­ball League (CAFL), which will launch this fall with in­door arena foot­ball. In Oc­to­ber, the CAFL spon­sored the first in­ter­col­le­giate Chi­nese col­lege foot­ball play­offs.

“We’ve seen the amaz­ing rise of the AFLC,” Young said. “They play the 11-a-side out­door game. They must have had 3,000 peo­ple at their fi­nal game in which the Shang­hai Nighthawks took the cham­pi­onship. They now have 12 solid teams; they could dou­ble that eas­ily.

“This is the kind of thing that is re­ally use­ful,” Young said of other foot­ball en­deav­ors in China. “We need to have more peo­ple play­ing Amer­i­can foot­ball. Hav­ing a prod­uct in mar­ket is good. We all have to kind of help each other.” Con­tact the writer at williamhen­nelly@

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