clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The NFL is Destined to Fail in China

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

The NFL is planning on expanding the International Series to Germany in 2017 and China in 2018, in an attempt to branch out into the league's six frontier markets- the others being the United Kingdom (check), Canada (check), Mexico (check, in 2016), and Brazil (possible 2017 Pro Bowl destination).

Mexico City, Toronto, and London are three major international cities that have legitimate potential for a sustainable NFL franchise, per FiveThirtyEight research. Germany was host to five of the six NFL Europe teams upon the league's closure, while American Football in Brazil is growing at a rate that had led one local team to have more Facebook fans than the Bills, Bengals, Browns, Jaguars, Titans, Buccaneers, Rams and Cardinals.

The NFL likes to tout the London expansion as a complete success with viewership growing hand over fistalthough some might disagree with the reports, so the league wants to capture the magic and spread it to other countries.

China, however, is the golden goose for the NFL. The upper middle class of the country has surpassed the United State's for the first time in history in 2015 and is expected to grow to more than 50% of the country's population by 2022. The NFL wants their support and all the disposable income that comes with it.

The issue is that the NBA got there first and won't be conceding ground anytime soon.

While the NBA might be losing viewers in the United States, they're growing in China and have a solid lead over other American sports on the international stage.

The NBA has a distinct advantage over its American competitors because the sport has been entrenched in the country's identity. Basketball made its way to China just a couple years after it was established in the States and was one of the few Western imports to continue under the Communist rule of Mao. They even had a basketball team in the 1936 Olympics, the first time basketball was considered an Olympic sport. There are generations of basketball players in China, with talent of a high enough level to compete on an international stage.

Basketball is similar to soccer in the sense that it takes few resources to play. You need a ball and a hoop- and "hoop" is a loose term. The rules are simple enough, the game is fluid, and the scoring is exciting enough to capture an audience. It is a sport that can be practiced alone and played together. Every shot is an opportunity to distinguish oneself. These are all important qualities in a region entrenched in soccer.

The NFL also acknowledges the fact that American Football isn't an Olympic sport hampers the growth in China.

"Here in China, there are far more patriots than there are sports fans," NFL's Managing Director of the NFL in China Richard Young told a Chinese outlet. "People rally behind the flag. Primarily, sport is seen on ethnic and national viewpoints; and pride."

While both soccer and basketball allow China to compete in World Championships and Olympic events, football has no comparable stage. The Chinese government also plays a role in developing future athletes, while cultural norms push kids towards academics instead of athletics. The country's one-child policy also deters parents from directing their kids to high contact sports, and the league's tone deaf approach towards head injuries certainly won't endear the sport to an international audience.

These are, of course, sweeping generalizations, but they play an important role in projecting the growth and success of the NFL in China. Iconic players and events are necessary to connect viewers to a sport and to leave a lasting impression, and China is not likely to present one to the football world.

The NBA launched their growth in China in the late 1980s when they allowed a Chinese television network to broadcast games "free of charge," and the NFL has been trying to follow suit. The star power of Michael Jordan and the 1992 Dream Team, as well as the development of basketball player Yao Ming into an international star has placed the NBA in the homes of 30 million viewers per week.

The NFL could use a similar ambassador for the sport, but China's current stance towards football makes it unlikely that a Ming-like player will be able to star in the States, and the prospects of a home-grown player like Jeremy Lin are also bleak. While there will be Pacific Islanders on almost every team, descendants from eastern Asia are far and few between.

In order for the NFL to thrive in China, there has be an increased focus on the future of the sport because the concerns shared by those in the Chinese market are the same as those in the States.

As health concerns continue to be the thorn in the NFL's side in the States, it's important to realize that is the stopping point of any potential for the sport in China. Per Harris Polls of Americansonly 26% of non-football fans think the NFL's concussion policies are effective. Now project that sentiment over a population that the league is trying to entice.

If the league can genuinely improve the safety of the sport, perhaps there will be room for development- or else football will have to grow on the back of two-hand touch or flag football leagues.

The NFL also has to realize how out-of-touch they are with the youth demographic, which is set to boom in China, in line with a growing middle class and increased disposable income. While the NFL (and baseball) continues to watch its average viewer increase in age, the average basketball fan has remained the same age over the past decade- a sign of continued youth interest.

We mentioned Facebook fans earlier in reference to the interest in football in Brazil, but there's also a reason why the Celtics have far more Facebook fans than the Patriots do.

The NBA understands how to leverage technology to capture wider audiences. The NBA considers fan-made highlight tapes to be free marketing, while the NFL is content with preventing sites from embedding YouTube videos from their official channel. The NFL wants to control every facet of the experience, while the NBA wants to support the user's individual experience.

Superstars are created when the athletes' individualism shine both on and off the field. The NFL owners are too busy trying to stop touchdown dances to notice that white males over the age of 65 are the only demographic that dislikes celebrations. These superstars are necessary to create a 1992 Dream Team-esque impact for football in China.

And finally, the NFL needs to find themselves an ambassador that can promote the sport- and superstars would be incredibly helpful in this step. The Patriots are the most popular team in China, so naturally a player from New England would make the most sense. Safety Patrick Chung is of Chinese descent and has been actively involved in Boston Chinatown.

Or maybe if the league owners could stop railroading quarterback Tom Brady over DeflateGate, they could see that Brady is the favorite NFL player of Asian Americans (and, on another note, he'd be a walking billboard for the league in Brazil thanks to his wife).

Until the league recognizes that safety is a major issue that is worthy of immediate action, and until the league stops catering to the whims of out-of-touch owners desperate for immediate returns, instead of focusing on the health of the league's future, China won't be a successful venture for the NFL.