The American National Football League (NFL) has been hinting at a China strategy for some time now. Last year, the New England Patriots were meant to play an exhibition game in Beijing – a plan that was scuttled for reasons never made clear. During the Olympics, I met one of the NFL’s Chinese corporate sponsors in a “festive environment” who assured me that the Patriots would play in China next year. Or the year after that. Or at least some time in the future. The waiting is the hardest part.
The NFL has already dipped its toe in overseas waters. The league has held regular season games in London in a bid to redefine the word “football” to a nation that needs no such re-definition. The as-yet-to-occur China exhibition games are evidently part of a master plan to bring America’s top sports marketing product to the world’s most populous nation.
While reporting previous sports marketing stories, China Economic Review asked experts about the NFL’s prospects in the middle kingdom. Their answers ranged from “no chance” to “definitely no chance.” They cited a litany of factors working against the NFL – from the expense of equipment to parents’ reluctance to allow their only children play what is arguably the world’s most dangerous sport – as reasons for their dour forecasts.
But it appears the NFL isn’t giving up. Standing in the Beijing subway at the tail end of rush hour, I was surprised to see highlights from last week’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles broadcast on the small flat-panel televisions inside the car. Fellow passengers watched the spectacle with passing interest, though admittedly it’s not hard to find a captive audience among bored commuters. At the end of the highlight reel, the NFL China logo appeared briefly on the screen. Branding at work.
It’s going to take a lot more than subway advertisements to introduce this sport to China, and the endeavor may be a lost cause from the outset. The NFL has a much harder sell to make than that other American sports marketing import taking China by storm, the NBA. But they’re making a token effort, and it would be foolish not to given their cash-rich coffers and China’s massive population, in which even a limited success can make it worth the effort. Nonetheless I’m not holding my breath for football, American style, to sweep the nation.