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Charm offensive | NFL targets Chinese audiences with Kris Wu Super Bowl appearance

  • NFL using ambassador Kris Wu to target under-20s in China and southeast Asia
  • Experts say Wu’s appearance at Super Bowl LIVE generated a lot of buzz…
  • …but say the NFL needs to invest more in the region to establish a true following

A few years ago Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice-president for International, talked about the need for a “step change” in the approach to the league’s China strategy.

After several years of steady growth in the world’s most tantalizing market, the hope was that a catalyst could take interest in the game in China to the next level. It hasn’t happened yet. The league’s latest strategy is a celebrity approach in its elusive quest to convert today’s niche following into tomorrow’s mainstream appeal.

The day before this year’s Super Bowl, in which the Philadelphia Eagles held off Tom Brady’s heavily-favoured New England Patriots, Chinese-Canadian singer and actor Kris Wu braved freezing conditions in downtown Minneapolis to perform on the Super Bowl LIVE stage, appearing in his official role as ambassador for NFL China.

The weather restricted attendees to a small crowd of hardcore fans, but, more significantly, many more in China had risen early to watch their hero perform a ten-minute segment that was streamed live by Tencent, which signed an exclusive digital streaming deal with the NFL last year and had a team on the ground in Minneapolis to cover Wu’s performance.

While Wu remains a relative unknown in North America, he’s a household name across much of Asia, especially among the younger demographic. Raised in both Guangzhou and Vancouver, he joined the South Korean-Chinese collective EXO, which has been referred to as the most famous boy band in the world.

Standing out from a dozen similarly-styled band mates can be hard, but since branching out on his own following legal disputes with the band’s management in 2014, Wu has developed his own brand that’s been so electric The Telegraph last year credited his advertising campaign with British fashion house Burberry as being directly responsible for “a surge in Chinese shoppers”.

The 27-year-old has racked up an impressive number of sponsors, including Mercedes-Benz, Huawei, Dell, Bulgari and Ray-Ban, and sporting partnerships are being added to the list. In addition to the recent NFL tie-up, Wu has appeared in campaigns for Adidas and Reebok, while in February this year he appeared in his third straight NBA All-Star celebrity game – the only Chinese celebrity to have played in the game since its inception in 2003.

Simon Xue, CEO at Synergine Media in Beijing, says Wu is arguably the hottest celebrity in China right now, though jokes that in the fiercely partisan world of celebrity worship, fans of fellow EXO graduate Lu Han would likely attack him online for saying so. Wu, Xue adds, appeals particularly to those in their twenties or younger.

It’s that demographic the NFL is right to target, according to Li Shuangfu, co-founder of Lanxiong Sports. “The younger generations, especially the post-00s, are more willing to accept new sports. Everyone’s into sports now, but liking the NFL is cool, because it’s different and makes you stand out.”

Li also plays down fears that the high cost of playing American football is a barrier, adding that people are willing to pay for equipment and training sessions. “You can charge far more than you can for basketball, so even if you have far fewer people playing, you can still do well,” he says.

While Wu’s appeal opened up the sport to a new sector in China, Li questions how much real change it might make. “We noticed a lot of retweets and comments on Chinese social media [about the Super Bowl], but 80-90 per cent related to Kris as a person, not the game itself. It was a smart move by the NFL and created a lot of buzz, but I’m not sure what the long-term effect will be. I don’t see Kris fans becoming NFL fans in the future.”

Wu also appeared opposite Vin Diesel and Rihanna in the Hollywood film xXx: Return of Xander Cage last year; he’s been a celebrity mentor to contestants on TV show “The Rap of China” and appeared in a duet with Pharrell Williams at Alibaba’s Singles Day extravaganza last year.

Wu told SportBusiness International by email that he had grown to like the Super Bowl since his teenage days in North America, when he realized quite how popular the Super Bowl was, calling it his “honour and pleasure” to be named as this year’s ambassador for the world’s most recognizable sports game.

Wu also referred to the NFL as “the world’s top sports brand”, pointing out that he was the first Chinese artist to perform at Super Bowl LIVE. Li says that while Wu has a genuine love of sports – calling him a “solid” basketball player – by hitching his brand to sports events like the Super Bowl and the NBA All Star weekend, it’s a strategy that should help him attract other sports brands. Just days after his performance in Minnesota, for example, Reebok announced an expanded partnership with Wu (he had previously endorsed their Classic shoe series).

While Wu’s performance in Minneapolis was several steps down from the likes of Justin Timberlake or Pink, who both appeared as part of the main Super Bowl show the following day, the LIVE stage has featured performers such as Alicia Keys, OneRepublic, Chris Isaak and ZZ Top in recent years.

However, some in China had edited footage of Wu’s performance from the LIVE stage with previous Super Bowl main stage footage, specifically Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s infamous 2004 duet. It appeared designed to mislead viewers about which stage Wu was performing on, but ended up emphasizing the much smaller stage.

At the end of his short performance, Wu made a point of addressing his fans back home directly, speaking briefly in Mandarin and thanking them for tuning in. But though his slot seemed clearly designed to appeal to those outside of the US, there’s no suggestion this was a case of a rights-holder prioritising international reach over local fans.

“Kris Wu was a tiny part of the Super Bowl party and entertainment, so the local fans were not overlooked,” says Mark Adams, founder and managing director at Global Bridge and a veteran sports marketing expert. “This was just a smart, savvy move by the NFL to provide some content to expand interest in China.”

One question that refuses to disappear is when the NFL might stage a game in China, something that at one point seemed penciled in for 2018, but has since been postponed indefinitely, although league officials still say it will happen at some point.

Li says the NFL definitely has the potential to be a big sport in China, but notes that it took 20 years for the NBA to build an established following.

One of the area where Li says the NBA has excelled is in public welfare projects, teaming up with the education ministry to do outreach programs in schools, something that is particularly welcomed in the Xi Jinping era, as China continues to promote sport at all levels.

But in the end, it might just all come to money.

“The NFL needs to invest much, much more than they are doing in terms of training programs, promoting the game to youth, getting in schools and growing the fanbase,” Li says. “Otherwise, outside the Super Bowl, people just won’t care.”

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