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Asian interest in Superbowl LIV dulled by bad timing and lack of local stars

Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers and his mother Kim Young-Hee attend their farewell news conference on April 11, 2006 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea gave the American football star, who left the country as a toddler, a hero's welcome. Ward, who was born to a Korean mother and an African-American father, became an overnight sensation in South Korea when the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver won the MVP award in the team's Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks last February. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Australia is one of the most competitive markets for eyeballs in the world, yet about 400,000 people (from a population of 24.5 million) are expected to watch Superbowl LIV on February 3 – even though it starts at 9am on a Monday.

“NFL has been a sleeping giant in Australia for more than a decade,” Adam Hodge, head of strategy Australia and Asia Pacific for Octagon, tells SportBusiness. “It is a standalone entertainment platform that has grown a significant following in the past 10 years. It’s challenge in the region is simply timing – it needs to be watched live, and being broadcast at 9am on Monday morning and running four plus hours means that it’s a full workday commitment for real fans.”

Kick-off time in Australia is better than most. In Delhi it is 5am, while Seoul and Tokyo can watch at 8.30am. And the language barrier that exists in many Asian markets does not help a sport that needs detailed and technical analysis to be fully appreciated.

As it stands, most Asian countries will not broadcast the Super Bowl live.

Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders from USA during the Cathay Pacific International Chinese New Year Night Parade in Hong Kong. (Photo by Ivan Abreu/Getty Images for Hong Kong Tourism Board)

“The main Korean broadcasters including KBS have not covered the Superbowl for more than 20 years,” says Baik Jung-hyun, head of strategic programming at KBS. Pay-television channel MBC Sports Plus picked up the rights in 2016, but…“they showed the whole NFL season, not just the Superbowl,” said Baik. “It only lasted three years as they gave up before this season because of low ratings.”

In Malaysia, dominant broadcaster Astro told SportBusiness it had not shown the game for many years, also due to low audience numbers.

Velappan Devaraajan was senior programme executive at ESPN Star Sports, which broadcast the Superbowl in Southeast Asia before it was taken over by Fox Sports in 2013. “Viewership was low with people more interested in the ads than the game,” he says. “The timing was one problem and Asians don’t really understand the game. If there were Asian players involved like in the Koreans or Japanese in the English Premier League and the Chinese in the NBA then it would make a difference.”

No buzz beyond Australia

The NFL’s popularity in Australia has been driven by the succession of players, often with Australian Rules Football backgrounds, who have left to forge NFL careers.

That pathway has been rarely followed elsewhere. Born in Seoul to a South Korean mother and an American father before moving to the United States at a young age, Hines Ward briefly became a South Korean sensation after being named MVP of the 2005 Super Bowl. But with little to no structure in place to take advantage of the Steelers wide receiver’s sudden fame in Asia, the buzz quickly faded.

“Other leagues, like the EPL and NBA as well as MLB in Korea and Japan, have established offices and made significant investments across the region,” says Hodge. “NFL has a long way to go to be more than a novelty for Asian audiences. If the NFL really want to build a serious audience in Asia, they need to show up. They need to bring top teams to play. They can start with pre-season or even off-season demonstration games, but as the Premier League and NBA have discovered, this audience demand respect and that is shown by actually being present in the market.”

Jarryd Hayne formerly played professional rugby league in Australia for the Parramatta Eels. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Among the 32 sponsors associated with the 2020 Super Bowl, Asian brands are conspicuous by their absence. South Korean carmaker Hyundai Motors ended its relationship as Official Automotive Partner in 2019.

“The product is too niche here,” says Marcus Luer, founder and chief executive of Total Sports Asia, a Kuala-Lumpur based sports content and branding solutions agency. “We had an Asian brand looking at it before but it was targeted towards the US market. I can’t see anyone right now paying the top dollars to reach an audience in Asia.”

Short form content

“Short form content/video is the way to enter Asia for the NFL,” argues Luer. “No-one understands the game well enough or has any deep affinity to it unless they studied in the US. The constant TV commercial interruptions and therefore the slow pace will turn casual viewers off here.

“NFL clips are great, fast paced and show the amazing ability of the players. It seems to be the right strategy to educate the market and build curiosity for the longer form.”

But it would have to be part of a long-term promotion strategy. “It’s a great start, and the short format is an excellent ‘gateway’ to the longer game, but it must be just that,” said Hodge. “A gateway followed up by something more substantial. Octagon’s research which has been run on thousands of sports fans in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Indonesia, shows fans in these markets love to engage with a sport via the celebrity of the players.

“Asian fans love to know about the off-field stories: the players’ love lives, hobbies, back stories and what makes them tick as humans. So maybe the NFL might want to look to more storytelling tools, such as Last Chance U (a Netflix documentary that follows unfashionable college teams) and All or Nothing (a documentary series on Amazon Prime) to get fans engaged with the teams and players and then leverage this into an interest in the wider sport.”

Not everyone agrees: a senior Asian broadcast executive told SportBusiness that leaning too hard on highlights could harm the relationships with broadcasters that the NFL will need to take the next steps in its expansion.

“The NBA does it, aggressively, but it devalues the role of the rights holder because for all that money you pay, other creators, users and platforms are able to publish clips on social in the name of ‘marketing’.

“The full live match is slowly losing its appeal because of this. And with the monetization options on social platforms, rights-holders are beginning to put a lot of attention on this area. So if the likes of the NFL or EPL owners decide to go on their own platforms, I see it as a big negative to broadcasters who will no longer fork out big money for the rights, and then in turn, the value of the sport drops dramatically and the sport itself suffers from lack of coverage, and soon the audience base will be deprived.”

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