NFL Aims to Reach China Through Unusual Channel With Reality TV Show

Stone, left, and Monster, members of a Taiwanese band called Mayday, take part in a flag football game that will be shown on
Stone, left, and Monster, members of a Taiwanese band called Mayday, take part in a flag football game that will be shown on "NFL Blitz." (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

O n a pockmarked Loudoun County field of mud and weeds, the National Football League spent a day last week honing its plan to invade China. Facing a population that has little knowledge of touchdowns, let alone a zone defense, the notoriously buttoned-down league figures the solution might involve one of Asia's most beloved rock bands running around a children's flag football game while being filmed for a reality TV show.

"We've started to understand what the code is to get into the Chinese market," said Chris Parsons, the NFL's vice president in charge of international operations. The key is not the game itself, but all the trappings of American culture that surround the action on the field.

Which is how Stone, Monster, Ashin, Masa and Ming -- the members of a Taiwanese band called Mayday -- happened to spend 10 days riding a bus around the Northeast this month, meeting cheerleaders and marching bands and playing flag football for a TV show that will run on China Central Television, or CCTV, this fall. All in the hopes of converting tens of millions of Chinese into fans of American football.

It speaks to just how desperate the NFL is to make this happen.

For years the NFL, which kicks off its regular season in full on Sunday, has been the most lucrative sports league in the world, generating an estimated $8 billion a year in revenue. But as technology improved, making it possible for American sports to be seen in more and more countries, the NFL has found itself in a dilemma, staring longingly at blossoming international markets yet with a game few outside of this country understand.

Both the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have strong international followings and eventually, many sports financial analysts have long said, the NFL will have to grow itself overseas or risk being left behind.

Over the years the league has tried to break into foreign markets, first playing exhibition games in cities such as Tokyo, Berlin and Mexico City, then embarking on a 16-year experiment of a minor league set in Europe. Both approaches were abandoned by 2007 to focus on bringing regular season games to European cities on the belief that the energy of the crowd for a game that counts would eventually win over fans. While two games at Wembley Stadium in London have sold out and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talks about someday having a team or a Super Bowl in London, none of those strategies has had a great impact.

There is little interest in football in China, where the most popular sports are table tennis and badminton. And while many young Chinese are big fans of the NBA and English Premier League soccer, both of which are broadcast on local television, the glimpses they have gotten of American football are bewildering.

"It's like explaining cricket to us," said Chad Lewis, the former Philadelphia Eagles tight end who as a student at Brigham Young University spent two years doing his Mormon mission in Taiwan and has become familiar with China in recent years.

But there are small signs of real progress. According to the NFL, an estimated 400,000 people in China watched the 2008 Super Bowl. This year the figure grew to 2.2 million -- a small sum given China's population but a positive sign given the game started at about 6 a.m. on a Monday in Beijing. There are only an estimated 500,000 expatriates living in the country.

It wasn't until 2003 that the NFL seriously considered China as a potential market. If the NFL couldn't shove its game into Western Europe, where the culture is roughly the same as the United States, how was it going to possibly entice the Chinese? But by the beginning of this decade, the lure of enormous markets like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong proved too tempting. The league opened an office in Beijing, began handing out flag football kits to Chinese elementary schools and made tentative plans for an exhibition game in Beijing in 2007.

Then a strange thing happened. The Americans in their early 20s who were dispatched to China to work on the exhibition game noticed that young Chinese in the country's biggest cities had an obsession with American culture. And, unlike the other countries where the NFL had been fighting to build itself, China did not have any significant professional sports leagues to compete against. Its one soccer league has been beset with scandal in recent years and has lost credibility with Chinese youth.

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