Bringing Pigskin to Land of Ping-Pong

NFL Looks to Reach Chinese Market with Reality Show

By Les Carpenter 

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

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 On a pockmarked Loudoun County field of mud and weeds, the National Football League spent a day last week honing its plan to invade China. Facing a population that has little knowledge of touchdowns, let alone a zone defense, the notoriously buttoned-down league figures the solution might involve one of Asia's most beloved rock bands running around a children's flag football game while being filmed for a reality TV show.

"We've started to understand what the code is to get into the Chinese market," said Chris Parsons, the NFL's vice president in charge of international operations. The key is not the game itself, but all the trappings of American culture that surround the action on the field.

Which is how Stone, Monster, Ashin, Masa and Ming -- the members of a Taiwanese band called Mayday -- happened to spend 10 days riding a bus around the Northeast this month, meeting cheerleaders and marching bands and playing flag football for a TV show that will run on China Central Television, or CCTV, this fall. All in the hopes of converting tens of millions of Chinese into fans of American football.

It speaks to just how desperate the NFL is to make this happen.

For years the NFL, which kicks off its regular season in full on Sunday, has been the most lucrative sports league in the world, generating an estimated $8 billion a year in revenue. But as technology improved, making it possible for American sports to be seen in more and more countries, the NFL has found itself in a dilemma, staring longingly at blossoming international markets yet with a game few outside of this country understand.

Both the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have strong international followings and eventually, many sports financial analysts have long said, the NFL will have to grow itself overseas or risk being left behind.

Over the years the league has tried to break into foreign markets, first playing exhibition games in cities such as Tokyo, Berlin and Mexico City, then embarking on a 16-year experiment of a minor league set in Europe. Both approaches were abandoned by 2007 to focus on bringing regular season games to European cities on the belief that the energy of the crowd for a game that counts would eventually win over fans. While two games at Wembley Stadium in London have sold out and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talks about someday having a team or a Super Bowl in London, none of those strategies has had a great impact.

There is little interest in football in China, where the most popular sports are table tennis and badminton. And while many young Chinese are big fans of the NBA and English Premier League soccer, both of which are broadcast on local television, the glimpses they have gotten of American football are bewildering.

"It's like explaining cricket to us," said Chad Lewis, the former Philadelphia Eagles tight end who as a student at Brigham Young University spent two years doing his Mormon mission in Taiwan and has become familiar with China in recent years.

But there are small signs of real progress. According to the NFL, an estimated 400,000 people in China watched the 2008 Super Bowl. This year the figure grew to 2.2 million -- a small sum given China's population but a positive sign given the game started at about 6 a.m. on a Monday in Beijing. There are only an estimated 500,000 expatriates living in the country.

It wasn't until 2003 that the NFL seriously considered China as a potential market. If the NFL couldn't shove its game into Western Europe, where the culture is roughly the same as the United States, how was it going to possibly entice the Chinese? But by the beginning of this decade, the lure of enormous markets like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong proved too tempting. The league opened an office in Beijing, began handing out flag football kits to Chinese elementary schools and made tentative plans for an exhibition game in Beijing in 2007.

Then a strange thing happened. The Americans in their early 20s who were dispatched to China to work on the exhibition game noticed that young Chinese in the country's biggest cities had an obsession with American culture. And, unlike the other countries where the NFL had been fighting to build itself, China did not have any significant professional sports leagues to compete against. Its one soccer league has been beset with scandal in recent years and has lost credibility with Chinese youth.

By early 2007, preparations for the following summer's Olympics in Beijing made finding a site for the exhibition game difficult, and there were problems of getting the game on Chinese television. The game was canceled and the league's staffers in China began working on a different plan: If young Chinese indeed have a fascination with American culture, why not instead of selling the game and its complexities, push its meaning to American society instead? They set a target audience -- teenagers and young adults in large urban areas, almost 100 million people.

"We thought a television show might bridge the cultural gap," Parsons said.

Last year, the NFL partnered with IMG, the international sports marketing company that has had a 20-year relationship with CCTV, to help promote the sport in China. In the past the NFL has tried to produce television programs for audiences in other countries, but those shows have been built around games and highlights, pushing the game, not culture. To inspire China, the NFL's show would have to be unique. Almost to prove that point, the Chinese director hired to run the project, Ton Yi Jun, rejected the first proposal of a traditional NFL-style educational program.

So starting around the time of this year's Super Bowl, the small group of NFL employees in China and the small group of IMG staffers in the country began meeting in each other's offices in Beijing. They discussed every concept they could imagine before settling on the idea of a reality TV show, according to Kevin Chang, the NFL's director of international media. Reality TV is popular in China, and the NFL and IMG staffs thought this might be the best way to get young Chinese to pay attention.

They insisted that the show not be a hard-core football program. It also needed a star -- "an ambassador," as Chang put it, "someone we could use as a hook to sell the game."

The choice was easy. Mayday. Most of the more popular bands in China would be defined as "boy bands," with a softer sound. Mayday's is a bit harder, more rock 'n' roll.

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"I think they had an innate curiosity about why the NFL is so popular in America," Chang said, adding that two of the band's members had actually watched NFL games on television and wanted to know more about it.

The show isn't exactly highbrow. The 16 episodes that have been filmed follow silly plot lines that have the band doing things like popping into the NFL's headquarters in New York looking for Super Bowl tickets and instead landing in the office's cafeteria taking on a cooking challenge with Lewis. Another has them in Foxborough, Mass., where they talk to the New England Patriots cheerleaders. Others involve tailgating and visiting Chinese-American players at Harvard and Virginia Tech.

The show, titled "NFL Blitz," will run on Chinese state television through the Super Bowl.

In one of the shows shot in Virginia, Mayday stops at James Madison High School in Vienna, where it encounters the marching band and thus learns the importance of bands at football games. Another has it stumbling across a peewee football game in Vienna. The flag football game at Virginia Academy is the final program in the series and will be the only one in which Mayday actually plays football.

It was obvious after watching one taping that the reality show will not have the usual sheen of an NFL Films production. But then, it doesn't have to. The intent is to produce a campy, lighthearted program that will convince Chinese children that if they want to learn the essence of America they must come to understand American football.

"The Chinese know and love Mayday and they want to know more and more about them," Lewis said. "They're like the Beatles. That's how the Chinese feel about them."

But instead of John, Paul, George and Ringo famously exchanging fake punches with Cassius Clay at Miami Beach's Fifth Street Gym during their 1964 U.S. tour, Stone, Monster, Ashin, Masa and Ming listened politely as one of the directors of the NOVA Youth Flag Football League screamed at them -- for the camera's benefit -- to "1-2-3 PLAY FOOTBALL!"

The band members laughed and shouted "1-2-3 FOOTBALL!"

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Then the musicians, along with the show's hostess, Ada Liu, and another singer off their label, a woman who goes by the name Ring, ran incoherently among the children, grabbing flags and occasionally getting to run the ball or throw a pass.

Ashin, the band's lead singer, sat out most of the game, standing instead with Aaron Randolph of IMG China and another IMG staffer who wore NFL golf shirts and provided commentary in Mandarin. It was an odd sight. One that undoubtedly will make more sense when the tape is cut up and spliced into a reality TV show.

And if it does, if the image of children running around a field of mud and weeds in Loudoun County throwing a football in a form of controlled chaos appeals to Chinese ages 12 to 24, then the NFL might have something it hasn't found in all the other countries it has been: Fans.  

Stone, left, and Monster, members of a Taiwanese band called Mayday, take part in a flag football game that will be shown on "NFL Blitz." (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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