NFL and China

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Read this news first from Wall Street Journal: NFL Considers Staging Game in China by 2018.

China has become “the elephant in the room.” If any business wants to make it worldwide, it can’t afford to ignore China. When I asked how NFL will penetrate into China upon staging a game there in 2018, I was looking for more than a simple “If you build it, they will come” answer.
Anybody can hold a one-off game with snowflake marketing and giving away free tickets to the government officials. But how to reach out and build the kinship with the average Chinese?
Take tennis for example. China began broadcasting tennis at the peak of Michael Chang’s career. But those games were often interrupted because of the poor ratings. In 2002, Shanghai partnered up with ATP Tennis holding men’s final for the following three years. At the time, most people don’t even know the “math” in tennis — Love-15–30–40, and not 45? It took another decade for tennis to gain nationwide popularity at the sensational news of Li Na winning the French Open in 2011.
Or look at NBA. It has been popular in China from Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s LA Lakers. But it was Yao Ming that brought about the China bonanza. Granted, it takes an ensemble of stars like Steve Nash, Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki to make the game interesting. But for the Chinese audience, while they were starstruck by the gifted NBA players in the past, now they got to cheer for their own. For the first time, NBA was “approachable.”
NBA is alway on the lookout for its next bridge, the next cultural ambassador that makes China tick from Yao Ming to Jeremy Lim. It holds summer camps in major Chinese cities. Megastars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James trek the Great Wall, visit schools, play with kids and interact with fans. At every Chinese New Year, they put out video clips with star players greeting fans in broken but cute mandarin.
It is only human that everyone wants to cheer for someone we can relate to. The first hurdle for NFL is to educate its Chinese audience about the rules. How to popularize the game when Americans use yards while Chinese do meters? If NFL wants to cultivate sophisticated viewers in China like NBA, it needs more than just putting on extravaganza at the Beijing Bird Nest Stadium. And why should Chinese care about American football? What’s good for them? Is it not in the Olympics? If yes, then you bet every school will mandate American football at the gym class from kindergarten to college.

It’s the bond that makes us human.

It’s the bond that makes the fans care.

My concern about NFL’s presence in China is more about “ecosystem” than merely holding one game on the China soil. Where to begin when you do not yet have that bridge, that bond?
To win a market, one must first understand its culture, like what Nixon did with his Ping-pong diplomacy in 1971.

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