Though the Super Bowl is already America's most watched sporting event, the NFL is making a big push to gain additional viewers, and a great place to look for new people is a nation where there are 1.3 billion of them. There's a catch: It's China, where American football has zero tradition. It's time, then, to create one.
That is why, as football players, hangers-on and celebrities gathered in New Orleans last week, other big-name football veterans, NFL cheerleaders and even Super Bowl Champion and now free agent Reggie Bush made their way to Beijing to be a part of an NFL-sponsored Super Bowl XLVII party.
Crowds gathered at a Beijing hotel to watch the live broadcast of the game. For 300 yuan, or about $50, patrons got to attend the party, which featured a free flow of the traditional football-viewing beverage and NFL sponsor Budweiser beer (at 6:30 a.m. on a Monday, courtesy of an inconvenient 14-hour time-zone difference).
While living in China, I would frequently find myself watching football games over a cup of coffee with a few other (usually American) fans, while the rest of China was waking up to start their days. On Superbowl Monday, only a handful of lucky students at my expatriate high school were able to convince their parents to let them stay home for half of the day so they could tune in to the live broadcast of the game.
Needless to say, most people waking up for the early morning events were seasoned NFL fans and American expats familiar with the Super Bowl traditions of food, drinking and football.
The real goal now is to convince Chinese people that a sport with intricate rules that is rarely played in their nation is worth waking up at dawn for. The numbers are already encouraging. According to Richard Young, the managing director of NFL China, some 25 million Chinese people watched the game yesterday, of which were likely the 3 million "avid" fans the NFL has already established in the nation.
Twenty-five million people isn't a small amount. It's more fans than the entire nation of Australia has people, for example. But the NFL has even bigger goals for China. Young told USA Today that the league is hoping to attract 39 million men living in 19 Chinese cities who have shown interest in sports. Increasingly, it seems, people are starting to adopt the game.
Feng Shuo, an aerospace engineering student at the at the nation's Air Force University, is a tight end on his school's team. Now 23, Feng has been playing for about a year, an age much older than American football stars who begin preparing for the professional leagues when they are in high school. And though he, along with the rest of China, has had a late start, he believes the game has potential to reach mainstream popularity.
"I used to play soccer and tennis, but American football is better. It's a cool game, and young men need it to strengthen their spirit and bodies. It will be popular in China," Feng said to USA Today.
But the NFL does have some additional hurdles to overcome in addition to the time difference: China's media and government. Like many of the critics in the U.S., China's media has depicted the sport as a "barbarous" game. On top of that, China's government has a lot to do with what finds success in the nation. A government endorsement would help the league gain footing in the Chinese market but could also open itself up to too much government control and influence.
The NFL has seen significant growth in China, but a lot lies ahead in order to gain the success similar to that of the NBA, which had a homegrown Chinese player, Yao Ming, in America to help boost the game's fortunes.
"We recognize we have a long way to go, but we are growing quickly," Young said. Reggie Bush visited Feng Shuo's Air Force Academy team and also saw the potential of NFL popularity not just in China but the world, but agreed time and exposure to the game were necessary.
"I think it could [be successful]. It's obviously going to take time to just continue to promote football and the NFL into other countries, not just China. We have the one football game a year in London. I think that's a start," Bush said to China Radio International.