Just because the NFL is serious about playing a regular season game in China that doesn’t mean the league is scaling back their plans for the UK. If anything, this signals that the NFL is determined to keep pushing the sport beyond the US borders even more than before.
American football fans will probably hate Monday’s report from Fox Sports’s Alex Marvez that said the league is seriously considering playing a regular-season game in China sometime in the next two or three years. Most NFL fans in the US prefer their teams to play where they always have – at home.
But the NFL has ambitions of being a world game, not simply an American one. As they schedule more games in London they are starting to experiment with other locations as well. In February they announced that the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans will play a regular season game in Mexico City this year. They also said they have discussed the possibility of moving the Pro Bowl to Australia.
China, though, has long fascinated the NFL. Unlike much of the rest of the world where passionate interest in sports like soccer and basketball have left football on the outside trying to break in, the NFL has seen China as a blank slate – a country still new enough to western sports culture that the league believes it has a chance of making it popular with younger people (although soccer has started to take hold in the last few years).
Some of the league’s most clever work has been in trying to build an audience in China. Several years ago, the NFL opened an office in Beijing and actually planned a 2007 preseason game that would have been played in Beijing between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks – three months before the league played its first regular season London game. But conflicts with using the city’s then-unfinished Olympic Stadium along with difficulty in getting the game on Chinese television forced the NFL to drop the idea.
Still, the league officials who worked on the Patriots-Seahawks exhibition became convinced the league had a chance to reach teenagers and those in their 20s. They started devising grassroots efforts to bring Chinese kids to football. Perhaps the most elaborate of those came in 2009 when the league partnered with the marketing firm IMG to develop their own reality TV show for China Central Television. They flew a popular Taiwanese rock band called Mayday to the US late that summer and bussed them up and down the east coast.
Eventually, they filmed 16 episodes of the reality TV show. These included the band eating lunch at the NFL’s offices in New York, meeting the Patriots cheerleaders, visiting with Chinese-American students at Harvard and Virginia Tech and playing flag football with a group of kids in Virginia’s Louden County.
“We thought a television show might bridge the gap,” the NFL’s then vice president of international relations, Chris Parsons, told The Washington Post.
In recent years, the NFL has focused more on their London games as they faced a number of home-grown challenges including a lockout, concussion lawsuits and other high-profile cases including Ray Rice and Tom Brady. But after resolving the long-festering issue of who will play in Los Angeles this winter, the league seems to be broadening their international reach.
“We are completing a detailed analysis of playing a regular season game in China as early as 2018,” a league spokesman said Monday. “A handful of teams have already expressed interest in playing there.”
Who knows how far this goes. It’s one thing to play games in London, which is as far from the northeast coast as Seattle is from Florida. China is a much more complicated trip, with greater time zone adjustments and a harder journey for teams’ fans to make. The idea of a London team remains a possibility, playing more than the occasional game in China does not. Teams have found the London journey to be smoother than they expected. China will not be as simple.
What is clear is that the NFL is more serious than ever about expanding their game beyond the US, hoping to hook fans in new markets and perhaps sell broadcast rights in other countries the way they have to several American networks. Their reach is getting wider, not smaller.
This article was written by Les Carpenter, for theguardian.com on Monday 21st March 2016 21.03 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010