How the NFL intends to push 'olive ball' in China

League uses digital media to boost football's profile within mainland market

By Published on .

[beijing] The National Football League has less than a year to build interest in China in the almost unknown sport of American football-known as "olive ball" in Chinese-before the first NFL game in Beijing next August.

The merchandising, sponsorship and broadcast opportunities are big in the world's fastest-growing sports market. The exhibition game, between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, will be broadcast live from Beijing's Workers Stadium by China Central Television (CCTV), the state-owned national TV network.

But the challenges of getting the Chinese up to speed fast in an unfamiliar and bewildering sport are formidable. The NFL is a newcomer in China compared to the National Basketball Association and the Union of European Football Associations.

Basketball-and the NBA-get a big boost from the fame in China of Houston Rockets star Yao Ming. The NFL has no Chinese players to spread the sport's popularity in their homeland. And football is not only rougher than basketball, it is difficult to follow, a significant barrier to growing the sport in China.

The NFL will get "some buzz" around the Patriots-Seahawks game, since football is one of the most popular American sports, said Daniel Postaer, director-sports marketing at DMG Media, Shanghai. Beyond that element of spectacle, however, football is "an entirely foreign sport. Chinese will need significant education about the game for it to take off. If people don't understand the game, which 99.99% don't, what's the point?"

To introduce Chinese sports fans to football, CCTV will broadcast the NFL's Sunday-night games live in China throughout the 2006 season, culminating with a live telecast of the Super Bowl.

The NFL knows it is entering new territory, said Terry Rhoads, general manager of Zou Marketing, a Shanghai sports consultancy that advises the NFL on the China market. "To make a comparison between the NFL and NBA is like apples and oranges, since basketball and soccer are truly global sports and have quite an advantage."

U.S. marketers are expressing interest in the game in China. An NFL spokesman said no deals have been signed, but possible sponsors include Motorola Corp., Visa International, IBM Corp., Federal Express, General Motors Corp. and PepsiCo.

Like most youth marketers in China, the NFL is using an aggressive digital-media strategy. Last week it relaunched its Chinese-language website (, developed with 21 Communications, a digital agency based in Shanghai, with multimedia web and wireless components.

Now fans can sign up for weekly football alerts and chances to win prizes, see full-color cheerleader pictures, join sports discussions, and register for blogs. The site also has video of football plays such as "punting" and "rushing" to help educate young Chinese about "olive ball."

Planning ahead, the NFL started grass-roots support for flag football back in 2003. Now five cities have flag-football teams, with 3,000 players and 1,000 coaches.
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