New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called the experience one of the great highlights of his life. So after visiting two cities in China in June of 2017 as part of an Under Armour promotional trip, Brady eagerly approached Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
“There’s a lot of interest in the game over there,” Brady told Kraft. “There’s a lot of people who love the sport, who appreciate it.”
With a population of about 1.4 billion and with a per capita GDP of $8,800, China is an attractive setting as the NFL, which generated about $15 billion last season and has set a goal of $25 billion by 2027, tries to further grow the game.
“It’s a great market,” said former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, an investor in the China Arena Football League (CAFL).
Soccer is the No. 1 sport in China, and basketball is No. 2, but football is somewhere in the top 10 of the sports hierarchy. And the origins of the sport are believed to date back to 1908, when visiting U.S. Navy sailors played in Xiamen.
The NFL opened an office in China in 2008, one year after its first regular-season game in England as part of a 15-year initiative to have the capability of having a full-time presence in London.
While Sky Sports televises live NFL games from 6 p.m. to midnight to the London audience, the time change in China adds another challenge. Sunday night games, for example, are shown Monday morning via video streaming and mobile devices as part of the NFL’s exclusive live digital agreement with Tencent, the largest streaming platform in China.
More than 90% of Chinese viewers watch alone, and many communicate about the games via chat groups.
“It’s a very different consumption experience,” said Richard Young, managing director of NFL China. “You’re not having guacamole and beer and 20 friends over at 7 a.m.”
Despite those potential impediments, Chinese viewers are tuning in. Live game digital viewership increased 72% the past year, and there were more than 709 million total video views of non-live, NFL digital content during the 2018 season. (Youku, a subsidiary of Alibaba, shows highlights packages.)
Super Bowl LIII aired on the morning of the Chinese New Year’s Eve and drew a live audience of more than 8 million in mainland China.
“It’s grown exponentially,” Young said. “We’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth just over last year.”
The Chinese are not only watching football, but also playing it. After only 36 teams across three cities in China participated in NFL flag football tournaments in 2014, more than 300 teams across 14 cities did so in 2018.
Thirty of the 34 provinces in China have at least one youth training program or adult football team, and more than 3,000 adults play on 76 organized recreational league tackle teams — a massive surge from the 400 players and eight teams who played just five years ago.
The University of Pennsylvania played against the American Football League of China (AFLC) All-Stars, a squad made up of several different clubs, in March.
The teams’ coaches met a couple of days before playing in the Global Ambassadors Bowl in Shanghai, and then a sell-out crowd of 3,200, including government officials, watched Penn warm up and compete.
The first Ivy League team to play a football game in China, Penn trounced the All-Stars 85-0, but Penn head coach Ray Priore said the lopsided score belied the talent his Quakers faced and that there were a handful of players with the ability to play on his team.
“They’re learning how to play it,” Priore said. “They weren’t as experienced on the techniques of football. They had some athletes.”
Though some of the taller players carried more than optimal weight, they executed sophisticated schemes like RPOs and spread passing formations.
“The coaching was good,” Priore said. “What they played was sound.”
Priore said he does not envision Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams going over to play but expects more Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams to make the trip.
The NCAA and NFL are not the only football associations making inroads into China.
Marty Judge, a co-owner, along with Jaworski, of the Philadelphia Soul — an Arena Football League team — founded the CAFL.
The league debuted in 2016, and Jaworski has seen four games in Beijing. Cheering the loudest for kickoffs and field goals, 6,000 fans filled the sold-out arenas.
“They loved it,” Jaworski said. “At the end of the game, they were standing on their feet.”
The Arena League might have the best future in China because many cities struggle with air pollution.
“You’ve got to be very careful with the outdoor game,” Jaworski said. “That’s why we felt the Arena League game would fit beautifully.”
About half of the CAFL players and several of the AFLC All-Stars are American expatriates living in China. Showing that it is indeed a small world, quarterback Jarred Evans, who faced Penn in the Global Ambassadors Bowl and also played in the CAFL, grew up in West Philadelphia right near Penn’s campus.
More Chinese are now growing up around the game as well. There are more than 30,000 children under age 12 who regularly participate in organized youth football training programs, and that number is projected to exceed 120,000 by 2020.
On the morning before the Ambassadors Bowl in Lokomotiv Stadium, Penn players and coaches guided 125 enthusiastic boys and girls from ages 6 to 12 through catching and throwing fundamentals.
“It was amazing,” Priore said. “That was so powerful.”
Often with their first name on the back, many of the Chinese children wore the jerseys of their favorite NFL players.
Young said the Patriots are the most popular team in China, but Brady is not the only NFL player to have visited China. Hall of Famers Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and Barry Sanders have held clinics. Russell Wilson traveled there a year after Brady raved about the football opportunities in China.
“It would be great to grow the sport,” Brady said. “It takes obviously a big commitment to make the trip over there for the teams, and I’m sure the NFL has to do a lot of things in order to make it.”
Jaworski said he expects football to be in China “in a big way” in the next decade, and rumors have swirled that the NFL tried to hold a preseason game in China between the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks in 2007, leading up to the Summer Olympics in Beijing, and that the Los Angeles Rams nearly played a 2018 regular-season game against the San Francisco 49ers in China.
Young was more measured, saying there is no timetable for a game, even though the NFL would be honored to stage one in China. Rather than focusing on one historic contest, the NFL wants to build a long-term strategy.
“We want to have the foundation of the sport growing,” Young said. “We’re not here for five years or 10 years. We’re here for hundreds of years.”