The NFL Is A Sleeping Giant In China

The NFL Is A Sleeping Giant In China

China is a “priority market” for the NFL, Commissioner Roger Goodell said this week. Photographer: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg© 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP

The Super Bowl will kick off on Monday morning in Asia and is expected to attract millions of viewers in a country that barely paid attention to football a decade ago: China. Just this week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called the country a “priority market.” The Patriots-Rams contest will be broadcast live on digital platform Tencent Sports, as well traditional broadcasters Five Star Sports, BestTV, and the Guangdong Sports Channel.

And it’s a sport that still has plenty of room to grow, even with the absence of local heroes or easy access to playing facilities.  To learn more, I exchanged by email with Andrew Collins, CEO of Mailman, a Shanghai-based digital sports agency that works with Kobe Bryant, FIFA and the NHL, among others.  Mailman’s investors include Yao Capital, Kaixin and WeCapital. Excerpts follow.

Q. What’s the state of football in China today?

A. There’s only one professional American Football League in China – the China Arena Football League, which began in the fall of 2016 where it played its only completed full season. It’s the first professional league to play in China, with six teams and 22 players with a balance of Chinese and foreigners (mostly Americans).

As for amateur football, there’s the City Bowl and American Football League of China (AFLC). Combined, they have over 50 teams across China and a whopping 1,750 players.  The City Bowl was founded by former teams of the AFLC and has 33 teams competing across two leagues. The league allows teams to schedule their games freely as they please, unlike the AFLC.

The AFLC has a total of 19 teams including two teams in Hong Kong, with 55 games being played in the current 2018-2019 season. Games feature across 16 cities, and in 2018, the league expanded to 20 teams from 18 in four divisions, and expanded to a 12-team playoff, with four division champions earning first-round byes.

There are other activities, too. NFL China Flag Football Tournament has include a variety of age groups and is easily adopted by inexperienced players. This ease of playing had helped the tournament grow from from 36 teams in 2014 to more than 300, across 15 cities.

In addition, there are two major privately funded American Football training organizations active in China, Great Stone Gridiron (GSG) and Skyway. Collectively, there are over 30,000 youth participating in organized American football training across 100 purpose-built facilities. This number is projected to hit 120,000 before 2020, as younger affluent parents encourage their children learn teamwork skills, character-building and a touch of English. It’s not cheap: the average fee reaches 27,600 yuan, or $4,000, per year for a weekly program.  GSG, founded in 2012, initially planned to set up an adult league, but spotted the youth niche as a business opportunity. GSG has expanded from Beijing to Shanghai and Hangzhou, and plans to open in Qingdao. Last year, GSG signed a partnership with Beijing-based fitness business Saipu to work on improving the curriculum provided by GSG.  “Chinese parents like American Football because it’s new, different and expresses their affluent lifestyle. They see the passion football brings in their children and they’re taught valuable life lessons about teamwork which children need,” says GSG CEO Yu Dong. Skyway, founded in 2015, built its first facility in Foshan. It has since developed 12 academies with a mission to drive leadership qualities in young children.

Q. Who watches the NFL in China?

A. The NFL’s main broadcast partner in China is Tencent. Outside the NFL, Tencent’s main sports partner is the National Basketball Association, in which they’ve gone ‘all in’ on. Tencent broadcasts four regular season games per week, including all three NFL primetime games — Thursday Night Football, Saturday Night Football, and Monday Night Football. These marquee games are featured live in China at 8:30am or 9:30am kickoffs. These games alone have seen 70% growth this year with an average of 2.2 million unique viewers per week, with all digital views including short-form video and broadcasts topping 18 million views each week. The Super Bowl continues to grow in stature with the most recent Super Bowl LII reaching an audience of almost seven million across digital and TV platforms.

More than four million people in China watched the conference finals, showing an increase of over 170% from a year earlier. The increase in viewership reflects the growing NFL fan base in China as they are now watching the sport for longer periods of time. Tencent is starting to invest more resources with Chinese pundits, celebrities and commentators – with those numbers you can see why.

Towards the end of 2018, a partnership was announced between the NFL and Youku, “the YouTube of China,” and Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s primary online video platform. Youku purchased a short-form package including game highlights, behind-the-scenes stories, and featured specials like NFL Kickoff and the NFL International series. It’s a nice play, given the China broadcasting rights are up for renewal post 2020 season. The behind-the-scenes and documentary-style content complements Tencent’s live broadcasting giving fans a much richer experience. This strategy to provide more content, more often, and add the layers of historical and entertainment content which drives team loyalty is crucial as the league develops its brands. Fans need to choose teams, and in the absence of hometown support, this content plays nicely to it.

Q. Do you need local heroes to build an audience?

A. The NBA and soccer are readily available to play and far more likely to host local Chinese stars, albeit very few prospects right now. Stars like Yao Ming paved the way for a $1 billion business for the NBA in China. But do you need active participation or local heroes to build a credible business?

The NFL presents a unique opportunity to focus on delivering a knockout TV product on the Mainland. They’ve shown a great product, a great use of time spent, can build an audience in China without ever having to play games, or develop local prospects.  When you consider China’s population, the numbers may seem small in comparison, however, the total addressable sports audience is more like 10% of the national population. To add perspective, more people tune in to watch the NFL in China than a primetime AFL game in Australia. AFL, which is the dominant religion in Australia, sold their media rights there for the equivalent of $1.74 billion over six years.

Q. So digital is a key channel.

A. To say the NFL has gone ‘all in’ in digital in China would be an understatement. They’re active across Chinese social media with all 32 teams posting scores, news, infographics and short-form videos to fans across the country. On a monthly basis, all 32 teams combined publish on average 740 posts across Sina Weibo, China’s largest micro-blogging platform with total followers now surpassing 2.5 million.  In the 2017 season, NFL China Weibo had over 218 million exposures and 61 million cumulative video views, while its WeChat (site) gained over 1.4 million reads. The NFL China Weibo account recently surpassed the one-million follower milestone.

The New England Patriots have made an early position as “China’s team’” by producing a “for China” online short video series hosted by star quarterback Tom Brady. In it, Brady interviews fellow players, tastes local food and tries his hand at ping pong – while speaking directly to Chinese fans. The results have been positive with over five million views across the five-part series and the Patriots rocketing to the most followed club in China. All this digital activity has helps inspire the younger generation, with the NFL more engaged than most U.S. sports leagues, including MLB, PGA, and the NHL, as well as topping the earliest soccer league in China, the Bundesliga.

Q. What does the great success of Kris Wu last year tell us?

A.  In 2018, the NFL did an awesome job partnering with the Super Bowl LII ambassador – Kris Wu – the first ever Chinese artist to perform at a Super Bowl event. The #KrisWuSuperBowlTrip# hashtag topped 450 million in exposure, with four million in Weibo discussions and over 33 million cumulative videos views across Weibo and Tencent.  Interestingly, Wu actually reached out to NFL for this appearance as he wanted to be involved with the Super Bowl, which goes to show how strong the NFL’s popularity is with popular culture and how that is affecting Chinese culture.

Q. To what extent are NFL players coming to China?

A. Recent Super Bowl champions Tom Brady and Russell Wilson have made the trek in recent years. Brady, visited in 2017 with Under Armour.  In 2018, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, joined by his popstar wife Ciara, entertained fans on a two-city tour in Shanghai and Hangzhou organized by Alibaba. Wilson was featured in fan meet-and-greet videos and attended various public appearances to engage local fans. Off the back of this trip, he was the fastest-growing NFL athlete on Weibo and is now the second most followed NFL athlete. Oakland Raiders’ linebacker James Cowser, who speaks Mandarin fluently, worked at the NFL’s China office in Shanghai in 2017, trying to elevate both his and the league’s name in China. In 2017, he got an internship with NFL China in Shanghai.  Jerry Rice visited China in 2014, followed by Troy Polamalu in 2016 and Peyton Manning in 2017. As of 2019, there have been more than 20 former NFL and college coaches in China helping to grow the sport. Chris McLaurin, previous tight end at Michigan, is now working for ISG, a football training company. Dionte Allen, a cornerback from Ohio State, works for the AFA, also a football training company.

Q. What’s next for the NFL in China?

A. Is it playing professional games? A merchandising business? Or just a well-engaged TV product? Whatever the end game, American football is making huge strides with the most desired young-affluent families in China that consider this ‘foreign activity’ not only good for their children, but gives the family a certain status they wouldn’t otherwise have. Some 30.9 million people in China are interested in the NFL; households with annual income of over 480,000 yuan are more 2.5 times more likely to follow the NFL than the average Chinese sports fan.

If the NFL continues to improve the TV product and develop more local content formats that speak directly to people, there is no obvious reason why they can’t build a significant business. The broadcast rights alone have the potential to be in the tens of millions of (American) dollars. In today’s ‘attention’ economy, the NFL has recognized that it requires more local content and a product that successfully entertains its new audience.

–Follow me on Twitter @rflannerychina

 

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China is a “priority market” for the NFL, Commissioner Roger Goodell said this week. Photographer: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg© 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP

The Super Bowl will kick off on Monday morning in Asia and is expected to attract millions of viewers in a country that barely paid attention to football a decade ago: China. Just this week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called the country a “priority market.” The Patriots-Rams contest will be broadcast live on digital platform Tencent Sports, as well traditional broadcasters Five Star Sports, BestTV, and the Guangdong Sports Channel.

And it’s a sport that still has plenty of room to grow, even with the absence of local heroes or easy access to playing facilities.  To learn more, I exchanged by email with Andrew Collins, CEO of Mailman, a Shanghai-based digital sports agency that works with Kobe Bryant, FIFA and the NHL, among others.  Mailman’s investors include Yao Capital, Kaixin and WeCapital. Excerpts follow.

Q. What’s the state of football in China today?

A. There’s only one professional American Football League in China – the China Arena Football League, which began in the fall of 2016 where it played its only completed full season. It’s the first professional league to play in China, with six teams and 22 players with a balance of Chinese and foreigners (mostly Americans).

As for amateur football, there’s the City Bowl and American Football League of China (AFLC). Combined, they have over 50 teams across China and a whopping 1,750 players.  The City Bowl was founded by former teams of the AFLC and has 33 teams competing across two leagues. The league allows teams to schedule their games freely as they please, unlike the AFLC.

The AFLC has a total of 19 teams including two teams in Hong Kong, with 55 games being played in the current 2018-2019 season. Games feature across 16 cities, and in 2018, the league expanded to 20 teams from 18 in four divisions, and expanded to a 12-team playoff, with four division champions earning first-round byes.

There are other activities, too. NFL China Flag Football Tournament has include a variety of age groups and is easily adopted by inexperienced players. This ease of playing had helped the tournament grow from from 36 teams in 2014 to more than 300, across 15 cities.

In addition, there are two major privately funded American Football training organizations active in China, Great Stone Gridiron (GSG) and Skyway. Collectively, there are over 30,000 youth participating in organized American football training across 100 purpose-built facilities. This number is projected to hit 120,000 before 2020, as younger affluent parents encourage their children learn teamwork skills, character-building and a touch of English. It’s not cheap: the average fee reaches 27,600 yuan, or $4,000, per year for a weekly program.  GSG, founded in 2012, initially planned to set up an adult league, but spotted the youth niche as a business opportunity. GSG has expanded from Beijing to Shanghai and Hangzhou, and plans to open in Qingdao. Last year, GSG signed a partnership with Beijing-based fitness business Saipu to work on improving the curriculum provided by GSG.  “Chinese parents like American Football because it’s new, different and expresses their affluent lifestyle. They see the passion football brings in their children and they’re taught valuable life lessons about teamwork which children need,” says GSG CEO Yu Dong. Skyway, founded in 2015, built its first facility in Foshan. It has since developed 12 academies with a mission to drive leadership qualities in young children.

Q. Who watches the NFL in China?

A. The NFL’s main broadcast partner in China is Tencent. Outside the NFL, Tencent’s main sports partner is the National Basketball Association, in which they’ve gone ‘all in’ on. Tencent broadcasts four regular season games per week, including all three NFL primetime games — Thursday Night Football, Saturday Night Football, and Monday Night Football. These marquee games are featured live in China at 8:30am or 9:30am kickoffs. These games alone have seen 70% growth this year with an average of 2.2 million unique viewers per week, with all digital views including short-form video and broadcasts topping 18 million views each week. The Super Bowl continues to grow in stature with the most recent Super Bowl LII reaching an audience of almost seven million across digital and TV platforms.

More than four million people in China watched the conference finals, showing an increase of over 170% from a year earlier. The increase in viewership reflects the growing NFL fan base in China as they are now watching the sport for longer periods of time. Tencent is starting to invest more resources with Chinese pundits, celebrities and commentators – with those numbers you can see why.

Towards the end of 2018, a partnership was announced between the NFL and Youku, “the YouTube of China,” and Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s primary online video platform. Youku purchased a short-form package including game highlights, behind-the-scenes stories, and featured specials like NFL Kickoff and the NFL International series. It’s a nice play, given the China broadcasting rights are up for renewal post 2020 season. The behind-the-scenes and documentary-style content complements Tencent’s live broadcasting giving fans a much richer experience. This strategy to provide more content, more often, and add the layers of historical and entertainment content which drives team loyalty is crucial as the league develops its brands. Fans need to choose teams, and in the absence of hometown support, this content plays nicely to it.

Q. Do you need local heroes to build an audience?

A. The NBA and soccer are readily available to play and far more likely to host local Chinese stars, albeit very few prospects right now. Stars like Yao Ming paved the way for a $1 billion business for the NBA in China. But do you need active participation or local heroes to build a credible business?

The NFL presents a unique opportunity to focus on delivering a knockout TV product on the Mainland. They’ve shown a great product, a great use of time spent, can build an audience in China without ever having to play games, or develop local prospects.  When you consider China’s population, the numbers may seem small in comparison, however, the total addressable sports audience is more like 10% of the national population. To add perspective, more people tune in to watch the NFL in China than a primetime AFL game in Australia. AFL, which is the dominant religion in Australia, sold their media rights there for the equivalent of $1.74 billion over six years.

Q. So digital is a key channel.

A. To say the NFL has gone ‘all in’ in digital in China would be an understatement. They’re active across Chinese social media with all 32 teams posting scores, news, infographics and short-form videos to fans across the country. On a monthly basis, all 32 teams combined publish on average 740 posts across Sina Weibo, China’s largest micro-blogging platform with total followers now surpassing 2.5 million.  In the 2017 season, NFL China Weibo had over 218 million exposures and 61 million cumulative video views, while its WeChat (site) gained over 1.4 million reads. The NFL China Weibo account recently surpassed the one-million follower milestone.

The New England Patriots have made an early position as “China’s team’” by producing a “for China” online short video series hosted by star quarterback Tom Brady. In it, Brady interviews fellow players, tastes local food and tries his hand at ping pong – while speaking directly to Chinese fans. The results have been positive with over five million views across the five-part series and the Patriots rocketing to the most followed club in China. All this digital activity has helps inspire the younger generation, with the NFL more engaged than most U.S. sports leagues, including MLB, PGA, and the NHL, as well as topping the earliest soccer league in China, the Bundesliga.

Q. What does the great success of Kris Wu last year tell us?

A.  In 2018, the NFL did an awesome job partnering with the Super Bowl LII ambassador – Kris Wu – the first ever Chinese artist to perform at a Super Bowl event. The #KrisWuSuperBowlTrip# hashtag topped 450 million in exposure, with four million in Weibo discussions and over 33 million cumulative videos views across Weibo and Tencent.  Interestingly, Wu actually reached out to NFL for this appearance as he wanted to be involved with the Super Bowl, which goes to show how strong the NFL’s popularity is with popular culture and how that is affecting Chinese culture.

Q. To what extent are NFL players coming to China?

A. Recent Super Bowl champions Tom Brady and Russell Wilson have made the trek in recent years. Brady, visited in 2017 with Under Armour.  In 2018, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, joined by his popstar wife Ciara, entertained fans on a two-city tour in Shanghai and Hangzhou organized by Alibaba. Wilson was featured in fan meet-and-greet videos and attended various public appearances to engage local fans. Off the back of this trip, he was the fastest-growing NFL athlete on Weibo and is now the second most followed NFL athlete. Oakland Raiders’ linebacker James Cowser, who speaks Mandarin fluently, worked at the NFL’s China office in Shanghai in 2017, trying to elevate both his and the league’s name in China. In 2017, he got an internship with NFL China in Shanghai.  Jerry Rice visited China in 2014, followed by Troy Polamalu in 2016 and Peyton Manning in 2017. As of 2019, there have been more than 20 former NFL and college coaches in China helping to grow the sport. Chris McLaurin, previous tight end at Michigan, is now working for ISG, a football training company. Dionte Allen, a cornerback from Ohio State, works for the AFA, also a football training company.

Q. What’s next for the NFL in China?

A. Is it playing professional games? A merchandising business? Or just a well-engaged TV product? Whatever the end game, American football is making huge strides with the most desired young-affluent families in China that consider this ‘foreign activity’ not only good for their children, but gives the family a certain status they wouldn’t otherwise have. Some 30.9 million people in China are interested in the NFL; households with annual income of over 480,000 yuan are more 2.5 times more likely to follow the NFL than the average Chinese sports fan.

If the NFL continues to improve the TV product and develop more local content formats that speak directly to people, there is no obvious reason why they can’t build a significant business. The broadcast rights alone have the potential to be in the tens of millions of (American) dollars. In today’s ‘attention’ economy, the NFL has recognized that it requires more local content and a product that successfully entertains its new audience.

–Follow me on Twitter @rflannerychina