NFL keen on China but in no rush to play there

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HOUSTON — The NFL places great value on the emerging sports market in China.

With the popularity of sports skyrocketing in the world’s most populous nation, the value of building a brand there is obvious, and the league is steadily chipping away at the task. About 1.5 million people watch NFL games each week on digital platforms in China, according to the league, and Super Bowl LI will be broadcast in Mandarin from a crew on site at NRG Stadium.

Could the next logical step be staging a game in China? The NFL has enjoyed great success with its NFL International Series games in London, and the league was set to play a 2007 preseason game in Beijing before postponing and ultimately scrapping the idea. The idea gained momentum again last March when commissioner Roger Goodell publicly discussed the idea at an owners meeting.

The idea of an NFL game in China is unique and potentially lucrative, but there isn’t yet a definite timeline for bringing an NFL game to Chinese soil, according to Mark Waller, the league’s executive vice president for international matters. NFL officials are currently examining the feasibility of playing in China but aren’t going to rush the process at the expense of product quality, Waller said.

“China brings some very unique logistical, scheduling, time zone issues which we’ve still not been able to work through entirely,” said Waller, who visited China last year to scout potential game sites. “When would you play that game? What time of day in China? How do you schedule it from a competitive standpoint?”

Beijing is a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles, and the time change is 13 to 16 hours ahead of the U.S. mainland. Teams would be concerned whether travel fatigue would put them at a competitive disadvantage in subsequent games, and a regular-season game would require one team to give up one of its home games that season.

Current and former NFL players attending this week’s Super Bowl events shared a range of opinions when asked what it would be like to play a game in China.

Former New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who now works for the NFL as a product ambassador in London, acknowledges that traveling for a game in China would be arduous, but he believes the opportunity to experience a distinctly different culture would outweigh the drawbacks.

“I would embrace something like that,” Umenyiora said. “A lot of players have never left America. They’ve never experienced anything other than that. So to be able to go to a place like China and play and be able to experience China, I think that would be great.”

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell said he is interested the idea of playing in China — as long as his team didn’t have to relinquish a date at Heinz Field.

“I think Chinese fans, or any fans, would expect to see the best, and the preseason is less about the competitiveness of the game than about individual athletes and whether they’re going to make rosters and things like that. It’s a different fan experience, and I’m not sure I’d want that to be the first experience a Chinese fan got at one of our games.”

Mark Waller, NFL executive VP for international matters

“That would be fun, as long as they didn’t take away one of our home games,” Bell said. “We would probably have to go over a week early, maybe leave after the game the week before.”

Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson said he is aware the growing appetite for American sports in China and believes the logistics of playing there, while difficult, are feasible if teams get a week off after the game.

“For a young player, I think you would be excited to go to a country you’ve never been before,” Dickerson said. “But when you’ve been in the league for a couple years, you don’t want to go on those long trips.”

True to Dickerson’s words, second-year running back Melvin Gordon of the Los Angeles Chargers said he was intrigued by the possibility of competing in China.

“I think that would be amazing to be able to do that and to be able to give those fans that experience,” Gordon said. “I would definitely be for that. We do it in London, so why not?”

Certainly, not every player would be in favor of traveling so far during the season, even if some might not admit it. Former Giants kicker Raul Allegre, who currently works as an analyst for ESPN’s Spanish-language NFL broadcasts, has spoken with players about the challenges of playing games outside the United States.

“Logistically, I know players would hate it,” Allegre said. “They may say it was a good experience, but deep down, they would hate it. Coaches definitely would not like it, and players even less.”

Playing an NFL game on the other side of the world isn’t without precedent, however. The Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers played a 1999 preseason game in Australia, which necessitated an even longer trip than a game in China would require. The preseason could potentially offer greater scheduling flexibility in order to maximize recovery time. Teams could conceivably be given a week off before and after the game. However, Waller believes it’s important to deliver an authentic product to Chinese fans. That means giving them a regular-season game that counts in the standings — not an exhibition in which star players see limited playing time.

“I think Chinese fans, or any fans, would expect to see the best, and the preseason is less about the competitiveness of the game than about individual athletes and whether they’re going to make rosters and things like that,” Waller said. “It’s a different fan experience, and I’m not sure I’d want that to be the first experience a Chinese fan got at one of our games. You may get a turnout for it, but you may end up with some disappointed fans. It may end up actually being counterproductive.”

In previous decades, the NFL aggressively worked to expand its international reach with the American Bowl series, which featured preseason games in the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Spain, Ireland and Sweden. More recently, the league has planned its international schedule more carefully — focusing on London, Mexico City and Toronto — and makes it a priority to keep promoting the sport in those markets after the game is played.

“For us, one of the key learnings in the last 10 years is that you need to have a plan over time,” Waller said. “What we used to do, going back 15-20 years, was we would play games in markets without a real sense of what happens after you’ve played the game. Now, we’re very focused on if you’re going to play a game, you better make sure you’ve got a plan to make the most of it before, but more importantly, afterward.”



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