The National Football League is coming to China!
Last month, a group of New England Patriots cheerleaders spent 10 days leading pep rallies and cheer clinics across Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. (You can read a first-hand account of their adventures here. If you’re not so inclined, suffice it to say that they made a lot of new friends ... "China is close to our hearts!”) Earlier this week, it was Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana’s turn to play cultural ambassador: Wearing a San Francisco 49ers windbreaker, he threw the old pigskin on the Great Wall. Yeah, Joe!
This marketing push has been going on for a few years, and the NFL is quite encouraged by its progress. According to the league, there are now more than nine million loosely defined “fans” in China, three million of whom regularly watch an NFL team. Granted, China has more than 1.3 billion people. But this may just be the beginning. Long-term, the league says it expects the Chinese market to become “very significant." This presumably means -- I don’t know -- tens, maybe even hundreds of millions of fans?
How preposterous is this notion? The NFL can point to a powerful precedent in the NBA, which successfully imported its product to China in the 1980s. Of course, the NBA did this on the back of a once-in-a-generation talent and one-man marketing machine, Michael Jordan. Since Jordan, the NBA has had Yao Ming and now Jeremy Lin to help fuel basketball’s popularity surge in China.
For its part, the closest the NFL has come to having a Chinese superstar is Ed Wang, an offensive lineman who was released by the Philadelphia Eagles before the start of the 2013 season. There will surely be more Chinese-American players in the future, but odds are their names won’t sound any more familiar than Wang’s. Football, unlike basketball, is not a superstar-driven sport.
This is one of many reasons why the NFL, for all its dominance in the U.S., has not had an easy time making inroads abroad. The league has tried in vain to drum up interest in Japan since the 1980s. (It turns out the Japanese already have a popular sport in which outsized men throw each other to the ground.) The NFL has been hammering away at the European market for years, too, with little to show for it beyond some soggy games played at Wembley Stadium and some crazy talk about putting a team in London before the end of the decade.
In one sense, China seems the least likely place for American football to find purchase. This is a nation that values academic achievement, which is not exactly consistent with encouraging your (only) child to play a sport that might very well destroy his brain.
In another sense, though, it’s easy to see China’s appeal to the NFL: No pesky lawsuits from former players and their families, no independent medical research on the dangers of head trauma, no free press to counter the league’s propaganda. In an authoritarian state, football could just be football.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)