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NFL struggles to gain ground in China

Despite a six-year push, the National Football League has had difficulty developing a fan base in the country.

February 07, 2009|Peter Spiegel

BEIJING — Super Bowl Sunday arrived in China's capital at daybreak Monday, but by kickoff it was standing room only at the Goose 'n' Duck, a British-style sports pub near sprawling Chaoyang Park in east Beijing.

The vast majority of the nearly 350 football fans who braved the frigid morning temperatures were expatriate Americans, many already with beer in hand despite the hour.

But in one corner of the two-story complex was a rabid group of Chinese fans watching the English-language broadcast with the help of two Mandarin-speaking commentators, perched on stools with microphones in hand, who had been hired by the National Football League.

The party, along with a gathering in Shanghai, was one small part of a six-year effort by the NFL to sell its sport in a country where the league has struggled to find a fan base.

Even at its own Super Bowl party, the challenges the NFL faces in China were on full display.

Although the Super Bowl was broadcast nationwide by state-run CCTV, Chinese authorities put it on a 30-minute delay, so organizers of the NFL party piped in a live feed from a Philippine satellite broadcaster. And though local fans were enthusiastic, they frequently stared blankly at TV screens during complicated penalties and on-field rulings.

"The NFL has a lot of work to do in China," said Hong Liu, a 50-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers fan from Beijing who began following the sport while attending college in western Pennsylvania.

The NFL's struggles in China have come despite an increasingly affluent youth culture hungry for international sports, and the league's major push, begun in 2003, to make China its fifth foreign target market, after Britain, Japan, Canada and Mexico.

The league opened a Beijing office two years ago with grand plans to stage an exhibition game between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots before the 2007 NFL season. The plan included an effort to recruit Chinese rugby and soccer players to perform as place kickers.

But the game was scrapped as part of an overseas retrenching that also saw the league shut down its struggling NFL Europe league. The sport has had difficulty persuading Chinese national broadcasters to televise games live.

NFL executives acknowledge that they face an uphill climb without the advantages enjoyed by basketball -- an Olympic sport with an international Chinese star in Houston Rockets center Yao Ming -- and soccer, still China's favorite sport.

"You've got a nation that's obviously enthralled by Olympic competition. And the Chinese athlete, when he can compete on a world stage, is king," said Chris Parsons, the NFL's new vice president in charge of its international business. "But we've looked at it and said: We have to be able to compete in this marketplace."

Critics say that a number of the NFL's wounds have been self-inflicted. At first, the league attempted to push into China without its own presence in the country, for years relying on intermediaries and partners to market the sport.

Even after opening its office here two years ago, some argue, the NFL paid too little attention to developing the sport in schools like it has in Japan, where flag football has become increasingly popular through the league's promotional efforts.

Terry Rhoads, cofounder and managing director of Shanghai-based sports consultant Zou Marketing, said the NFL tried sponsoring a nationwide effort to introduce flag football to Chinese middle and high schools. But Rhoads, who worked as a consultant to the league for its first three years in China, said a reorganization of its international efforts by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2007 cut back on many grass-roots efforts, focusing instead on national media exposure.

NFL executives believe the spectacle of the sport, what one official called the "gladiator style" of the game and the players, will bring in new fans.

In recent months, the league has renewed efforts for an exhibition game, aiming for August 2010, and have been in talks with the National Stadium Co., operator of Beijing's main Olympic venue, known as the Bird's Nest, and stadium groups in Shanghai about hosting the event.

But the biggest push has come in trying to secure TV broadcasts, a challenge that is compounded by time zones: Games played early Sunday afternoon on the U.S. East Coast begin at 2 a.m. in China.

The league has focused on its Sunday night and Monday night games, which, like the Super Bowl, start in the morning in China.

Though the NFL has struggled with conservative and bureaucratic CCTV, it has experienced more success recently with regional broadcasters, particularly in Shanghai, where Shanghai Media Group televised the NFL's Sunday night games live this past season.

Perhaps more important, in an effort to get around CCTV's stranglehold on national broadcasts, the NFL has rapidly ramped up its Web efforts, including an unprecedented deal to stream "Monday Night Football" games live on Sina.com, one of China's most popular portals.

Nicholas Krippendorf, a consultant who ran the New England Patriots' office in Beijing for two years, said the Sina.com deal is a watershed, an acknowledgment by the league that it must use any avenue to get the sport in front of Chinese eyes.

Statistically, the results are hard to gauge. Sina.com totaled 4.5 million page views on its NFL site last season, which the league considers a strong showing. And though the NFL's own Chinese-language site has grown exponentially, it started small: In January 2008, it had just 20,000 unique visitors; a year later, it hit 84,000.

Even with the modest success on the Web, Parsons believes broadcast TV remains the top priority.

"Getting on TV and getting a broadcast," he said, "is one of the key planks of building a sport in any country."

--

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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