The NFL’s prospects in China

Former NFL safety Jack Brewer, who is very active promoting the game in China, admitted to me recently that the NFL had made some serious missteps in the past here by rushing in too quickly and then having to retreat somewhat.

“It’s the NFL. We’re Americans. When are we not overambitious?”

But he added that the league has learned from that and is now taking a slower, grassroots approach that it hopes will be more sustainable. Either way, it won’t be clear for years whether the NFL has a serious future in China. In a perfect world, one or more promising Chinese kids will move to the US and make it in the NFL, but that won’t be happening anytime soon – if ever – and involves so many variables. So the alternative is to try and make progress inch by inch.

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Here’s my Sports Talk column from today’s Global Times on the topic:

Baseball may still be called “America’s pastime”, but football long ago took over in terms of popularity and the Super Bowl has become more of an American institution than apple pie.

Fans of the sport still have to wait another 27 weeks for next year’s season to start. In North America, newspapers, blogs and sports radio have no problem filling the void, but half a year is an awfully long time to maintain interest in the sport around the world.

The 2013 Super Bowl registered 1.4 million unique live viewers online in China, up 35% year-on-year – impressive growth even accounting for China’s rapidly increasing internet population. TV numbers were also up, and NFL games were shown on 19 regional channels last season.

The NFL is playing the long game here: American football is still very much a niche sport in China, where it has been dismissed for a multitude of reasons – lack of understanding, too much violence, minimal fan connections, and even for simply being a team sport.

But there is hope.

Ed Wang, the first NFL player of full Chinese descent, recently signed a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Wang’s parents both represented China at the 1984 Olympics and, while he is never likely to become a top player, he is at least someone Chinese sport fans can relate to.

An impressive list of NFL players have made their way to China in recent years to promote the sport. One of them, Reggie Bush, who won the Super Bowl in 2010, watched this year’s game with fans in Beijing and said he’d like to see NFL franchises located outside of the US and the sport included in the Olympics.

That may be just a dream at this point, but NFL China Managing Director Richard Young says participation is the key, as long as China’s bias towards individual sports is put aside:

“If parents in China understand that playing team sports will help you succeed in life, I believe team sports have a very bright future in China,” Young said.

The US has been successful in selling its cultural beliefs to China over the years, but so far the only American sport to make headway in China is basketball. If a homegrown Chinese football star can ever make a significant breakthrough – and it’s a big if – then football may have a very real chance of launching itself into the top tier of sports here.

Not surprising that Reggie Bush would like to see American football in the Olympics, but I don’t see it replacing wrestling any time soon. At the moment, they would struggle to hand out all three medals, let alone stage a competitive international tournament…

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