Leading the charge to recruit NFL fans in China is Managing Director Richard Young, a longtime American expat. He's focused on potential adopters: the 39 million men in 19 key cities who are interested in sports. The league counts 3 million avid Chinese fans and aspires to be a Top 10 sport among males in the country's tier-one cities by 2020. NFL China works with McCann's Momentum and Beijing-based local PR agency WM Sports.
For Chinese fans, the NFL is hosting breakfast parties in Beijing and Shanghai, where the Big Game starts at 7:30 a.m. Seven Chinese TV stations will broadcast the game, and it will also stream live online. The Super Bowl was watched by 22 million people in China last year, either live or on delay—a fraction of the 520 million who watch "The Voice of China" singing competition.
Ad Age: Is there any existing structure for football in China?
Mr. Young: You've got to make a marketplace. We're building the NFL, but there's nothing underneath. We have a 38-university flag-football league and they're in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou. There's a real opportunity here both for flag football and contact to grow, but it's going to require some help. The [Chinese] sports ministry right now, they're primarily interested in getting [Olympic] gold medals. And spending a lot of resources toward developing American football just doesn't sit in their line of focus.
Ad Age: What are Chinese attitudes toward the sport?
Mr. Young: There are a lot of comments that it doesn't fit the Chinese body style. Well, the first ethnic Chinese to be in the NFL is a 6-foot-5, 320-pound left tackle, Ed Wong. ... [Or people say] we don't like that kind of clashing, or we never let them play because of safety. It's got to be safe, but China is the world's powerhouse in amateur boxing.
Ad Age: Are there cultural differences?
Mr. Young: Where sport lies in the lives of your average Asian person is a cultural difference at this moment. It goes back to that [Western] acceptance that it makes you a better person. I don't think the majority of [Asian] parents out there believe that. ... It's not [seen as] a key ingredient for building a person.
Ad Age: If Chinese aren't sports nuts, what are they passionate about?
Mr. Young: Especially recently, Chinese are very into China. There are far more patriots than there are sports fans here. ... Why is curling always on [national broadcaster] CCTV? Because they're good at it. They beat the Canadians in the Olympics. So I think that's another area that's a challenge. We don't have American football, nation vs. nation.
Ad Age: What's key to growing this uniquely American sport in China?
Mr. Young: I think you need to be here 100 years, or no years. Commit yourself, hell or high water, no matter what happens. ... China is deeper and weirder and wilder than most people imagine.