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NFL scrambles for attention from Chinese sports fans

League hopes rookie Taylor Rapp can be American football's Yao Ming

Mandarin-speaking Tom Brady, quarterback of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, has proven an apt ambassador to China both for his team and the National Football League. (Courtesy of NFL China)

SEOUL -- As the U.S. National Football League kicks off its new season this weekend, the organization has set its sights on making a bigger splash in China, a market where it trails well behind American rival sports.

As its last season was wrapping up in January, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he was making China "a priority market" for the league.

"We believe that our game has a great deal of potential to expand [there]," he said. "We have had double-digit growth this past year in China in our fan base and people engaging with our game. I hope sometime in the next couple of months we are going to have some very exciting announcements."

Some expected the league to announce that it would finally realize its ambitions to hold an exhibition game in China. Also pending is an announcement about reviving the league's presence on Tmall, the country's dominant digital mall; the NFL quietly closed its shop on the Alibaba Group Holding-run platform at the end of 2018 when its partnership with U.S. retail services company Export Now ended.

But the only announcement that has come out of the league has been a tie up this past week with Chinese internet company ByteDance under which the NFL will launch its own channel on the company's TikTok short video service and the two will cooperate on other content and marketing projects. TikTok though is just for overseas markets and no mention was made of Douyin, ByteDance's service in China.

The NFL has reached agreements to supply video content to Chinese internet companies Tencent, Alibaba and ByteDance as it seeks to build its audience in the country.   © Reuters

The NFL already has operating ventures with Alibaba and Tencent Holdings, China's two biggest internet companies. Under a pact signed in December, Alibaba's Youku video service is featuring weekly game highlights and other content. Tencent meanwhile has been streaming four regular-season league games a week through a three-year agreement signed in 2017.

League officials are keen to create a bigger footprint in the country. While terms of its pact with Tencent have not been disclosed, it cannot hope to compare with the $700 million the English Premier League is getting for three years of Chinese broadcast rights for its soccer games.

China meanwhile is the top overseas market for U.S. National Basketball Association-related merchandise and even U.S. Major League Baseball has its own chain of stores in the country. The NBA, Major League Baseball and even the U.S. National Hockey League have each already held exhibition games in China.

Last month, Alibaba Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai bought the NBA's Brooklyn Nets for $2.35 billion, giving him a bigger stake in promoting the league in China. The Nets are now due to play the Los Angeles Lakers in Shanghai and Shenzhen next month.

Why has American football had such a hard time in China? "The requirements for equipment and facilities are high and [the sport] is too physically competitive for Chinese," said Bi Yuan, a Beijing-based consultant who advises foreign sports team about the Chinese market.

Indeed, the casual ease of playing basketball and soccer has certainly helped the two sports achieve popularity in China. The NBA has also gotten an immense boost by importing professional players from China such as Yao Ming.

That isn't so much an option for the NFL at this point, but Monday could bring the debut of Taylor Rapp, a Chinese-speaking player whose mother was born in the country. Rapp's Los Angeles Rams will be facing off against the Carolina Panthers. Rapp was a second-round draft pick by the Rams this year after making a splash as a college player at the University of Washington.

The NFL once had a game scheduled for Beijing in 2007 but it did not come off and repeated attempts to put another on the schedule have never come to fruition.

In part, that is because of football's complicated logistics, with NFL teams traveling with 52 players as well as coaches and trainers, according to Gideon Clark, a client director at digital sports marketing agency Mailman Group in Shanghai.

"Then you factor in flights, time differences and even facilities [such as] which stadium in China can provide the level of play necessary for NFL-quality game production," he said.

Even so, American football has built a foothold in the country. Over 5,000 children play the sport in youth programs in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Qingdao.

"Chinese parents like American football because it's new, different and expresses their affluent lifestyle," said Yu Dong, chief executive of Great Stone Gridiron, one of two main youth operators. "[Parents] see the passion football brings in their children and [that it gives] valuable life lessons about teamwork."

The China Universities American Football League has 15 teams while two adult amateur counterparts together have more than 50 teams. The China Arena Football League, which plays an indoor variation of the game, fielded six professional teams in its debut season in 2016 but has struggled to resume play. A Sept. 1 post on its website promises an announcement to come about the league's 2019 plans, but so does one from July.

Meantime, the NFL is fighting for attention online in China. League champion New England Patriots have gathered more than a half-million followers on the Weibo social network. The team last season launched a monthly online Chinese show built around star quarterback Tom Brady speaking Chinese, interviewing other players and eating with chopsticks.

The conference championship victories of the Patriots and Rams in January drew an estimated 4 million Chinese streaming views, up 150% from the games a year before, according to Commissioner Goodell. Beijing resident Zhang Zhi is one of the Patriots' fans.

"Many of my friends who have studied in the U.S. have started watching [the NFL] after they came home as it reminds them of their time there," Zhang said. "[But] I watch alone on my laptop. It is the easiest way, especially as the games often take place at inconvenient times in China."

If the NFL can connect with enough sports fans like Zhang, it will not matter that it trails the NBA in China, says Mailman's Clark.

"You don't need to be the market leader to have a successful business in China," he said. "To be the third or fourth most popular sport in China is still huge. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people will choose their favorite sports over the next 10 years and NFL can be one of them."

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