NFL kicks off China play

But will consumers like "olive ball"

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BEIJING--America’s National Football League (NFL) has planted its first flag in the world's fastest-growing sports market. The New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks will play the first NFL game of “olive ball,” as football is called in Chinese, in Beijing on Aug. 8, 2007.

The exhibition game at Beijing's Workers Stadium will mark the one-year countdown to the opening of the XXIX Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It will be televised live in prime time by China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s state-owned national TV network.

Like every NFL play, the decision to bring American football to China has economic roots. The NFL, the world’s richest sports league with $6 billion in annual revenue, is eager to capitalize on merchandising, sponsorship and broadcasting opportunities in China.

Sponsor interest
U.S. marketers are already expressing interest in next summer's game. An NFL spokesman in New York said no deals have been signed, but possible sponsors include Motorola Corp., already an NFL partner in China, and U.S. partners like Visa International, IBM Corp., Federal Express, General Motors Corp. and PepsiCo.

NBC, which broadcasts the NFL’s Sunday night games in the U.S., will also carry the China game live in the U.S. That offers a valuable opportunity to network with the Chinese authorities, since NBC will broadcast the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, and parent company General Electric is a global Olympic sponsor.

Even the decision about which teams will play in China was not left to chance. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., a major investor in China, owns the Seattle Seahawks, while the Patriots are owned by Robert Kraft, whose Kraft Group technology company has operated in China for nearly 20 years. The Patriots were the first NFL team to start a Chinese-language web site in 2004, but other U.S. football teams such as the New York Giants have followed with their own Chinese-language sites.

“Look at the companies based in Seattle like Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks. All three are doing great business in China. You can see how there could be a lot of corporate interest,” said Terry Rhoads, general manager of Zou Marketing, a Shanghai-based sports consultancy that advises the NFL on the China market.

China newcomer
A powerful and profitable institution in America, the NFL is a newcomer in China compared to the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Unlike football, basketball and soccer both enjoy enormous popularity in the mainland.

Basketball, in fact, “was played in China before it was played in Chicago,” said Brook Larmer, Shanghai-based author of Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar. He said the sport was introduced in the early 1900s by American missionaries “who brought a basketball in one hand and a Bible in the other.”

Today, the NBA has several Chinese basketball players, notably the Houston Rockets center, Yao Ming. Other Chinese athletes have excelled in sports like track-and-field and gymnastics, but there are no Chinese nationals in the NFL, a stumbling block to the game’s growth.

To help Chinese sports fans become more familiar with 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 Seattle and New England teams will each appear on Sunday night at least twice during the season.

But football is not only rougher than basketball and soccer, it is difficult to follow, a significant barrier to growing the sport in China.

The NFL will get “some buzz” around the game, since it’s one of the most popular American sports, said Daniel Postaer, director of sports marketing at DMG Media, an independent advertising and media company in 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?”

Online and grass roots strategy
The NFL knows it is entering new territory, said Mr. Rhoads. “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. We are introducing a new sport at ground zero.”

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

For instance, fans can sign up for weekly football alerts and chances to win prizes (via short message SMS) and full-color cheerleader pictures (via multimedia message MMS). They can take part in sports discussions on bulletin board sites (BBS) and register for a blog feature that will be added soon. The site also has video of football plays like "punting" and "rushing" to help educate young Chinese about the game.

The NFL has provided grass roots support since 2003 for flag football, a game with five-on-five players for school children aged 11-to-14. Each player wears two flags on a belt around their waist and instead of tackling the ball carrier, the defense stops the action by grabbing the ball carrier's flag.

Five cities--Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, Harbin and Shandong--have flag football teams with 3,000 players and 1,000 coaches. In August 2005, Beijing hosted the 6th annual NFL Flag Football World Championship tournament. (China finished 5th in a 10-country field.) The NFL’s next step is to support flag football teams at the high school level.

As older boys start playing a bigger, faster version of the game that would be familiar to American football fans, “they take to the game like ducks to water,” Mr. Rhoads said. They especially like the uniforms and equipment which make them feel like “modern-day gladiators," an appealing image in a nation of computer game addicts.

Chinese player?
Another aspect of football that could attract Chinese are the "social traditions” like tailgate picnics, he added. Because Chinese culture is already rooted in family traditions and communal dining, “it’s easy to imagine Chinese twenty years from now following a lot of those same traditions.”

But what will really help grow football in the mainland is having a Chinese player to root for, the way Yao Ming has helped grow the NBA in China.

Currently, the NFL has no Chinese players and only one player is well-known in China, Chad Lewis of the Philadelphia Eagles. A former missionary, Mr. Lewis learned to speak Mandarin while serving in Taiwan and provided local-language commentary for the few Chinese who tuned in for that country’s first live Super Bowl telecast in 2002.

But the association is investing significantly in training ahead of next summer's event. “So there are very good odds that on that day, at least one Chinese athlete will wear an NFL uniform,” hinted Mr. Rhoads.

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