With Super Bowl XLVIII coming up this Sunday, advertisers are waiting in anticipation to see how large of a TV viewership record it will break this year. Although it is the largest mass media event in the United States, the National Football Association (NFL) has global ambitions for its fan base—especially in China.
Will the NFL succeed in replicating its incredibly lucrative business model in China by making American football a top sport for local audiences? Another quintessentially American pastime, basketball, is currently China’s number one sport. However, unlike basketball, which has enjoyed over a century of exposure in China—beginning with YMCA missionaries and blowing up in the 1980s with the popularity of Michael Jordan—American football is a relative newcomer. Besides, very few Chinese engage with the sport firsthand. One common observation is that the physical nature of the game is antithetical to Confucianism and Chinese culture, which values filial piety as its greatest virtue. Filial piety, or respect for one’s parents and ancestors, includes avoiding behavior considered harmful. Despite these and other challenges, the NFL fan base has grown 462 percent over the past four years. To gain some insight into how the NFL is encouraging Chinese viewers to tune into the Super Bowl now and in the future, Jing Daily emailed with NFL China Marketing Manager Stephanie Hsiao, about her team’s approach for promoting an utterly foreign concept to the booming Chinese market.
How do you market a sport happening in a different country to Chinese viewers?
No doubt, it’s a challenge to market a sport where live games come in on Monday and Tuesday mornings (Monday Night Football is Tuesday morning, Sunday Night Football is Monday morning, [and] Sunday afternoon football is super early Monday morning), but we’ve focused on a media strategy that allows fans to watch where they want, when they want. High-quality localized NFL content currently airs on over 24 platforms across China, including on several digital and mobile broadcasters that cater to fans’ desire to watch “anytime, anywhere.” In 2013, we also carried out the NFL Home Field program, which brought an authentic football experience to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. In the span of 10 weeks, about 100,000 people had visited the NFL Home Field events and were able to experience American football in a much more personalized way.
With the Super Bowl coming up, we’ve partnered with the Kerry Hotels in Beijing and Shanghai to host the official NFL China Super Bowl Parties on Monday, February 3rd. Fans in China have come to recognize watching the Super Bowl as a true test of one’s NFL loyalty, and it’s become a badge of honor to wake up early to catch the game live. The Kerry Hotels have created a fantastic Super Bowl viewing event, offering a complete breakfast buffet to complement the showing of the game—and the eagerly anticipated commercials—on a giant LED screen without a bad seat in the house.
How well does a sport like football fit in with Chinese culture?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a culture issue, but rather a history issue. It’s tough to attract a Chinese audience to a sport with no history in the country—rules and nuances can be lost in translation. Additionally, there’s not the benefit of having a Chinese American Football Association or Asian American Football Association helping to oversee development, so we have to wear both hats a lot of the time; promoting the League while also diving into grassroots promotion of the game itself.
Oftentimes, when people find out that we’re marketing the NFL and American football, the immediate response is that the game is too physical and Chinese people won’t take to it. Feedback from our Chinese fans, however, is that one of the main reasons why they like American football is because the games showcase “superior athleticism”—they don’t shy away from admitting that they are attracted to the physicality of the sport, or that they see it as a “manly game.” The most frequently stated response to why Chinese fans like American football? Because it is “intellectual, tactical, and strategic.” Games revolving around intellect and strategy abound in Chinese history, so the cultural divide may not be as wide as one might think. American football just hasn’t been in China long enough.
How does the NFL promote the sport to Chinese VIPs?
In addition to watching the game and experiencing American football at NFL China’s offline events, there is a small but growing segment of Chinese fans that are interested in getting the real NFL experience by attending a game in the United States and are seeking out premium sports & leisure travel companies to provide them with this opportunity. NFL on Location is the official source for event experiences and hospitality, offering exclusive access to the NFL’s most premium calendar events, like the Super Bowl.
Not everyone will like American football and that’s ok. But those who do understand and appreciate the quality associated with a product like the NFL, and expect an exceptional experience when they choose to engage with the NFL. That first-rate NFL experience is what we look to deliver every time.
Do you think football will ever become as popular as basketball in China?
The NFL fan base has grown 462 percent over the past four years and we’re encouraged by the continued growth year on year. I’ll go back to an anecdote that our Managing Director, Richard Young, uses all the time. When he was a graduate student studying at Beijing Normal University in the early 90’s, he took his then roommate out for a cup of coffee, a rarity since few places even served coffee at the time. His friend, a local student, managed to politely choke down this black liquid and then told Richard, “In my lifetime—in my son’s lifetime—Chinese people will never drink coffee.”
Do I think coffee is ever going to replace tea as the staple drink in China? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean someone like Starbucks doesn’t have a solid business in China. And 50 years ago, would people have thought that basketball was going to supplant soccer’s popularity in China? So, who knows what the future holds? That’s the beauty of being over here.