Key to cracking China for NFL: Timing must be perfect

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

Sitting in a hotel room in California this preseason, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones leaned back in contemplation and chewed away on a corner of his eyeglasses. There was a discussion in the room about Jones’ celebrated business acumen when the conversation turned to the NFL’s steady press into foreign markets. That’s when the conversation hit a wall, leaving Jones silently pondering one of the league’s trickiest initiatives.

How in the world would the NFL crack open China?

“I don’t have a good answer on China,” Jones said. “It’s daunting.”

Some eyebrows in the room raised up. It’s not often that Jones stares down a business opportunity and calls it “daunting.” But that’s what China remains for the NFL: tantalizing and most certainly challenging. Indeed, figuring out the China promotional conundrum could be one of the trickiest hurdles the league has faced. Certainly far tougher than any of the current games being played in the NFL’s International Series, which opens on Sept. 24 when the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars meet in London, a game that will be streamed live on Yahoo Sports.

Jones will tell you he is thrilled about that game, along with the four accompanying it in London and Mexico City. And why not? The NFL is breezing along in those international regions, reaching both profitability and perhaps even long-term sustainability. But China? Well, even Jerry World appears to have its limits, for now, anyway.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on NFL’s plans to break into the Chinese market: “This isn’t like saying, ‘Let’s go mine gold in the Himalayas.’ It’s not that at all. It is real. But it is a daunting task to start and create.” (AP)

“I envy the ability of Manchester United and those teams to have those fans in China, and the kind of interest they have there,” Jones said. “I envy it enough to always be willing to go to China. I’d be willing to take trips. I’d be willing to noodle in it. I’d be willing to do a lot of things because of what it can do for our game.”

That’s what China is about for the NFL right now. Planting the NFL shield there, among a population of nearly 1.4 billion potential fans and customers. That will make league owners chase the dream. And they are. But there is something that has gotten lost in the sauce when it comes to the NFL’s plans for the Chinese market. The majority of headlines in recent years have been devoted to when the NFL will put a regular-season game in China, and where it might be played. But Jones and those who are continuously shaping the league’s China Plan reveal a strategy that has become crystal clear: The league isn’t just trying to play a game in China – it’s trying to figure out how to plant American football in the culture permanently.

“We don’t want to hold a game just to hold a game,” said Richard Young, who has been the NFL’s managing director of China since 2010. “That’s not the goal. The goal – and I think this is the thing that I think gets misunderstood, both in the media and by people in general – it’s got to be part of a long-term plan.”

So what is that long-term plan? First and foremost, the NFL wants to present a game in China when the moment is “ripe.” And there are different indicators of when that will be.

The NFL cut a three-year live streaming rights deal with Chinese multimedia behemoth Tencent in August. The hope is that having a such a massive corporate partner invested in the NFL’s effort – who can package and promote the sport into every nook and cranny of the country in an assortment of mediums – will take the NFL to the next level of consciousness and profile in the Chinese market.

Next, the league wants its regular-season game to be played with a specific trailing plan in place. In layman’s terms, the league wants to arrive and leave with the kind of gravitas that promotes and grows the playing of the sport in the country locally. While it’s not a perfect comparison, it might be drawn along the lines of baseball’s continued blossoming in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s, aided in 1934 by a barnstorming tour of the country by a traveling team of Major League Baseball All-Stars.

The NFL would like American football to take a similar root in China. And it would like to be a significant part of that driving force. That’s where a great deal of the league’s China-related resources are going. The goal is to figure out what can help the NFL overcome the inconvenience of time zones, which make it extremely hard for Chinese fans to watch the game live, being as much as 12 hours ahead of Eastern time in the U.S.

“If [American football] was played locally at a level that was appealing, people would get into the sport and you would be willing to take on some of the inconveniences in order to watch the best version of the sport,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s head of international efforts. “That’s the work that we’re literally starting to do now. If you want it to resonate locally, where would you look? Which regions would be more predisposed to the sport? And ultimately, what pathway would you need to help develop the playing of the sport locally? And over what time span? I don’t see a way you solve that fundamental time zone accessibility issue without having the sport locally.”

Jones took that aspect even deeper, suggesting that the NFL is still determining whether Chinese culture has the underlying thirst for what the league offers. Jones wonders if something as simple as the heated rivalries between cities can even exist in China.

Youths take part in a football game at an NFL publicity event in Beijing. The NFL has been aggressively promoting football in China hoping to take advantage of rising income and growing taste for foreign sports. (AP)

“You have to know if it has this,” Jones said, banging two fists together in conflict. “The numbers are there [to draw the NFL in]. But what our challenge is – whether it be London or Mexico City, which I think are prime areas for expansion – our real challenge is how to whip things up and see if Shanghai wants to beat Beijing. Can it rile them up and can they have that kind of competition? If you’ve got a culture that can create that, then we’ve got potential.”

The league is seeing some encouraging signs, though it remains to be seen how deep the game can go into the culture. An NFL-driven flag football initiative has continued with steady growth, topping over 200 teams across the country recently. Young said the league’s most recent study revealed that the number of people interested in the NFL in China grew 1,187 percent between 2010 and 2016 – from 1.6 million to 19 million. And during the 2016 season, the NFL’s live-streaming viewership grew to 37 million unique visitors, with an average of 1.5 million online viewers watching every week.

In a country of nearly 1.4 billion, those numbers are barely a drop in the bucket. But that’s what makes China so intriguing to the NFL. If the league can capture even 1 percent of China as consistent returning fans, that’s nearly 14 million new weekly consumers. And that can equate to an extremely healthy new revenue stream. That’s why the league is spending so much time considering the next game in China. It has the potential to be a significant foothold in an effort that is expected to span decades. And it will happen in 2019 only if the timing is exactly right.

“The key to that game … to play a game in China, we ought to be very clear what the subsequent steps are to grow the game locally,” Waller said. “The work that we need to do is less about the logistics of the game – which I think we have a pretty good sense of what we can do and how it could work. It’s more about, if you’re going to go to that level of effort, you better be very clear when you leave after you’ve played that game, what is there in place that will allow the Chinese a better opportunity to learn to love the game. I don’t think we need to go to China to prove that we can play a game in China. What are we going to build as a result of it?”

To be clear, the NFL isn’t aiming for a one-time moonshot here. The plan is more like colonizing Mars. After decades of sport being used as a government-driven tool of promotion on the world stage, the NFL sees a new space opening up. One where the Chinese people are heading to the intersection of choice and curiosity. And the league is working hard to be inside that intersection, greeting Chinese fans with open arms.

“There is enough there to chase,” Jones said. “This isn’t like saying, ‘Let’s go mine gold in the Himalayas.’ It’s not that at all. It is real. But it is a daunting task to start and create.”

Daunting, tantalizing and challenging. For now, there may not be one good, easy answer for cracking China. But if one exists, the NFL is hellbent on finding it.

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