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China’s sporting riches still out of reach for NFL

Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, (R) NBC Sport and Olympic Chairman Dick Ebersol (L) and Ren Jun of the Beijing Sports and Competition Management Center pose for photo after a press conference about the 2007 China Bowl on September 24, 2006 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

  • American football ranks about twentieth in terms of China viewer interest in sports
  • Tencent Sports is the NFL’s streaming partner, but its deal runs out this year
  • Chinese sport observers believe the complex game rules and extreme physical collisions are turning off Chinese sports fans

It’s more than 10 years since the NFL announced, then cancelled, a preseason game between the Patriots and the Seahawks in Beijing – choosing to focus on its other international fixtures.

How the NFL must be ruing that 2007 decision now. The ‘China Bowl’ has still failed to materialize, even after Tom Brady’s high-profile China tour of 2017 (“my dream is to play a game in China”) and commissioner Roger Goodell named China a “priority market” in 2018, targeting the country’s 1.4 billion population with a per capita GDP of $8,800.

According to CSM Media research, a Chinese TV and radio audience measurement company, American football ranks about twentieth in terms of China viewer interest in sports. NFL statistics show the 2019 Super Bowl and related content garnered nearly seven million Chinese viewers on TV and digital platforms. A regular-season NBA fixture between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets in 2018 drew 56 million on Tencent Sports.

Tencent Sports is also the NFL’s streaming partner. It airs four games per week from the regular season, plus the playoffs and Super Bowl. Regular-season games draw average viewerships of about 900,000.

Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, is optimistic that this year’s Super Bowl, which takes place on February 3, will do well, telling SportBusiness: “We have seen an over 50-per-cent increase in both the number of viewers as well as average viewing time for each game during the regular season this year.

Pro Bowl Cheerleaders pose for a group photo during the media day at Kerry Hotel on February 1, 2013 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

“We do think that this year’s Super Bowl will be one of the most watched ever in China. The NFL is growing strongly in China and our targeted marketing to our committed fan base has deepened our relationship to our China fan. We foresee growing and helping develop China’s sports landscape for the foreseeable future.”

Young’s positive analysis isn’t widely shared. Pei Bing, a commentator for the NFL on Tencent’s sport channels, says to SportBusiness: “The trouble with the NFL’s marketing is it has failed to address the root problem, which is that the complex game rules and extreme physical collisions don’t really suit the sensibilities of the average Chinese sport fan.”

It’s not a conundrum that seems solvable through mass lifestyle marketing, a route also chosen by the NBA, Pei Bing observes.

“The NBA picked Chinese singer Cai Xukun as its Chinese New Year celebration ambassador, which led to much controversy, with many sports fans reacting negatively to the decision, due to a perceived lack of masculinity from Cai’s public persona.”

Online polls on Hupu, a Chinese sport platform which many Chinese NBA fans follow, ran a poll which found an overwhelming 80 per cent saying it was “trash”.

“The NFL seemed to have chosen the same lifestyle strategy when picking Chinese actor and singer Kris Wu as its Super Bowl ambassador for NFL China in 2018,” notes Pei Bing.

The lack of mass Chinese interest has resulted in the NFL’s long-running China Bowl plans being curtailed recently, according to a top-level executive at Tencent Sports, who did not want to be named.

“The NFL is very eager to host the China Bowl, but it lacks confidence in the Chinese market to support it. It would be even more embarrassing if they went ahead with it and failed to get enough spectators to watch the game! The NFL’s current priority in China has moved on, and now they’re trying to cultivate a mass lifestyle base, rather than hardcore sports fans.”

He adds: “Having bought the exclusive media rights for 2017 to 2020, the NFL broadcast was always unlikely to bring Tencent as much traffic and advertising revenue as the NBA. It was really about just improving the spectrum of sports that was broadcast on our platform, and Tencent specifically introduced content about the NFL draft, rookie training camps and other peripheral content, not to make money, but just to try to educate Chinese sports fans about the sport.”

If there’s any silver lining from the NFL’s apparent failure to reach the Chinese masses, it’s that its niche status means Sino-US tensions arising from the ongoing trade war have hardly affected the NFL’s standing in China, despite it being a strong American symbol.

Chen says: “There were concerns that the NFL would suffer from the same nationalistic slings that the NBA has with the tensions, but frankly because of the small number of Super Bowl sports fans in China, the impact is miniscule, let alone enough to organise a boycott of any significance.”

Kris Wu Performs At Interscope Records And Beats Present ‘The Antares Experience’ – An Album Release Party on November 6, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Cassidy Sparrow/Getty Images for Interscope Records)

Ultimately, the NFL understands it’s playing the long game in China, with Young previously saying: “We have a reasonable expectation of the market in China. Just as coffee will never replace tea, rugby may never be as popular in China as basketball, but we can do second or third place, as long as the sports marketplace has a place for us.”

With the NFL’s deal with Tencent ending this season, there’s much to ponder for the Goodell and Young on what it’ll take to truly win the hearts and minds of Chinese sports fans… and its advertisers.

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