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Roger Goodell called China an NFL ‘priority market.’ After the NBA’s troubles, what’s next?

The NFL has some decisions to make about its relationship to China. (Mark Zaleski/AP)
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Speaking in Atlanta before last season’s Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was quite clear about the league’s plans to expand its reach in China and promised some “very exciting announcements” in the coming months.

“China is a priority market for the NFL,” he said. “We believe that our game has a great deal of potential to expand to grow and bring new fans into our game.

“We have had double-digit growth this past year in China in our fan base and people engaging with our game. So we are excited by it.”

Whether the NFL is reexamining those plans in the wake of the NBA’s increasingly troubled relationship with China remains to be seen, but the pro football league has long sought to establish a more sizable footprint in the world’s most populous nation.

The NBA, whose financially lucrative relationship with China is much more established than the NFL’s, has been the subject of criticism after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted out his support for protesters in Hong Kong on Friday, sparking a backlash in China and complaints domestically that the NBA was putting its international financial interests ahead of its support of human rights. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Tuesday issued statements supporting the right of NBA players and executives to speak freely on human rights; in turn, the Chinese state broadcaster announced it would not televise any of the NBA preseason games being played in China this week.

The Houston Rockets' general manager tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters, creating tension between the NBA and one of its biggest supporters — China. (Video: The Washington Post)

The NBA's China controversy, explained

The NFL’s relationship with China goes back to 2007, when a preseason game between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks in Beijing was announced but then canceled so the league could focus on its other international games. More recently, Goodell acknowledged plans for an NFL game in China in March 2016, and though the game has yet to materialize, the league has taken concrete steps toward that goal this year. In March, NFL owners discussed the possibility of playing a regular season game in China to start the 2020 season, with a final decision expected soon (the Rams and 49ers have long been considered the best possibilities, and the owners meet again next week in Florida). The league reportedly also has discussed the creation of a four-team Chinese league with investors there. Currently, there is one professional football league, the China Arena Football League, which returns next month after a three-year hiatus with four teams playing four games apiece.

While still not as established as pro basketball in China, the NFL has grown more popular there as more games have been available for viewing. Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, told CNBC in November that the league’s regular season streaming telecasts in China draw 900,000 viewers on average, with the Thursday night, Sunday night and Monday night games in the United States the most popular in China because they air in the mornings there. Andrew Collins, CEO of Mailman, a Shanghai-based digital sports agency, told Forbes in February that viewership of those games rose 70 percent last season and that 4 million viewers in China watched the conference championship games, an increase of 170 percent from the previous season.

The NFL has played annual regular season games in London and Mexico City since 2007 and previously held preseason games in far-flung cities such as Tokyo, Barcelona, and Sydney. But holding a regular season game in China presents certain logistical challenges, starting with the country’s distance from the United States: A nonstop flight from the U.S. East Coast to Shanghai is about 15 hours nonstop, about twice as long as a flight to Europe. There’s also the matter of finding football-specific facilities for team practices and outfitting one of China’s current stadiums to host the actual game.

“I think when you can fly between New York and Shanghai in an hour and a half, then we can do that. Until that time, it’s logistically very difficult,” Young told CNBC.

A request for comment from either Young or Christopher Halpin, the NFL executive vice president in charge of growing the game internationally, about the league’s plans in the wake of the NBA-China controversy was not immediately answered.

The financial rewards of further establishing a foothold in China could be great, however. The NFL’s digital streaming deal with Tencent, one of China’s largest Internet companies that airs four regular-season games per week, the playoffs and the Super Bowl, ends after this season, and while any new deal probably won’t be as lucrative as the reported five-year, $500 million deal the NBA signed with Tencent this past offseason, it still could be quite beneficial to the league.

“More people tune in to watch the NFL in China than a prime time AFL game in Australia,” Collins told Forbes. “AFL, which is the dominant religion in Australia, sold their media rights there for the equivalent of $1.74 billion over six years.”

In 2017, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady visited China and made videos, including one in which he said “my dream is to play a game here in China some day.” Whether he or any other NFL player suits up for a game there is an open question.

Read more NBA coverage:

Blackistone: While Adam Silver tries to straddle a line on China, the NBA misses an opportunity

What’s happening in Hong Kong? Some key questions, answered.

Jenkins: Don’t be mad at the NBA. Hundreds of U.S. companies have sold out to China’s regime

Chinese state TV cancels broadcasts of NBA preseason games and sponsors drop out in dispute over Hong Kong comments

From Shake Shack to Starbucks, the Hong Kong-China standoff is proving bad for business