The majority of Asian countries have long adored their sports and over recent years a huge amount of money has been poured into soccer, particularly from the Chinese Super League with big-name signings. However, that’s not the only sport on the up in the region.
Currently, American Football is a long way down the pecking order of the top sports, but the NFL see Asia and specifically China, as their largest untapped market and the population are likely to lap up any developments thrown their way. The sport isn’t one that gets played much in Asia with just one professional league, which only launched a short few years ago but amateur leagues are seeing big numbers signing up and, from a viewing perspective, the audience is definitely there.
Ten years ago the sport was barely heard of in Asian circles and now bars screen games every week; the NFL has partnered with broadcaster Tencent who air four matches each week — three of the four games are the NFL’s feature fixtures, which are on Thursday, Saturday and Monday evenings and the viewing figures have nearly doubled in just 12 months meaning over two million fans tune in each week; although more than three times that number witnessed the New England Patriots defeat the Los Angeles Rams 13-3 in the latest Super Bowl.
The popularity isn’t showing any signs of slowing up either with China putting a lot of resource into youth level coaching and state of the art training facilities but whilst projections suggest there will be over 100,000 youngsters playing American Football by the end of this year, NFL chiefs need to put their heads together to come up with some role models who can help provide a vision to the next generation.
Soccer is the dominant sport in China, but they’ve had stars like Sun Jihai and Li Tie turning out in the Premier League for Manchester City and Everton. Recently in the Spanish soccer league, a young Chinese striker, Wu Lei, joined Espanyol and it is incredible how much the club became suddenly popular in the Asian country — for your information, Espanyol is not even the biggest club of the city it represents, being overwhelmed by giants Barcelona. However, in China, they seem to be competing with their city rivals’ toe to toe.
Something similar could happen to NFL franchises if they seek Chinese players. Aspiring stars, especially children, need to see something that helps them dream and seeing a relatable star quality in the NFL would help but, unfortunately, it’s currently a missing link.
In some sports, teams have been suspected of signing players of perhaps lesser quality with an eye on the marketing opportunity, for example, the impact having a certain name on a shirt could have on your customer base and it’s plausible one of the NFL teams could take that approach.
However, a more likely temporary bridge is that of an NFL match being hosted in China, or maybe the country would be included in the NFL preseason schedule, just as London is. The idea has been muted on a number of occasions previously without ever coming to fruition but the passion for the sport has sustained now with over 30 million people following the NFL and it’s an event you can see edging ever closer.
Another approach that has been tried is the NFL superstars attending talks and interviews in China; the legendary Peyton Manning has courted media attention as has the long retired Jerry Rice whilst various others with reputations from the NFL have helped move the market to where it is today.
It’s difficult to predict when either of these things will happen — a Chinese player featuring regularly in the NFL or an NFL fixture being played in China — but there is a hunger on both sides and plenty of money on the line. Eventually, one of them will happen and when it does the other will follow pretty quickly; that could see the floodgates open and in another decade the NFL could be awash with Asian talent.