Saturday, February 7, 2009

NFL Struggling in China

Chinese people assume that the NBA is America's favorite sport. They don't understand that it isn't at all. In fact, as of January, 2008, the NBA was America's sixth favorite sport behind the National Football League, Major League Baseball, college football, auto racing, and the National Hockey League.

One can't blame the Chinese for thinking the NBA is king in America though. America's actual favorite sport, football, is still a complete mystery to China.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Reporting from Beijing -- Super Bowl Sunday arrived in China's capital at daybreak Monday, but by kickoff it was standing room only at the Goose 'n' Duck, a British-style sports pub near sprawling Chaoyang Park in east Beijing.

The vast majority of the nearly 350 football fans who braved the frigid morning temperatures were expatriate Americans, many already with beer in hand despite the hour.

But in one corner of the two-story complex was a rabid group of Chinese fans watching the English-language broadcast with the help of two Mandarin-speaking commentators, perched on stools with microphones in hand, who had been hired by the National Football League.

The party, along with a gathering in Shanghai, was one small part of a six-year effort by the NFL to sell its sport in a country where the league has struggled to find a fan base.

Even at its own Super Bowl party, the challenges the NFL faces in China were on full display.

Although the Super Bowl was broadcast nationwide by state-run CCTV, Chinese authorities put it on a 30-minute delay, so organizers of the NFL party piped in a live feed from a Philippine satellite broadcaster. And though local fans were enthusiastic, they frequently stared blankly at TV screens during complicated penalties and on-field rulings.

Read On

When I was a young kid, I was always under the impression that the Super Bowl was the world's biggest sporting event. Sometime in the past several years though, I've come to realize that this is woefully inaccurate. It is, indeed, America's biggest sporting event, but it doesn't even make a peep elsewhere in the world.

As an American, I completely understand America's fascination with football. I grew up in Kansas City, which arguably has the best NFL fans in America. In addition to the supporting the Kansas City Chiefs, Kansas City is also instrumental in supporting the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, and the University of Missouri football programs.

Where I grew up, football is a very serious past time.

But living for a significant period outside of Kansas City, and America for that matter, I have grown to see why (American) football has not and, most likely, will not take off outside of America.

The two things that I see as absolutely fatal death blows to football's popularity outside of America are its complicated rules and its constant stopping and starting.

The first difficulty for people who didn't grow up with football are its myriad of obscure rules. Even to someone who grew up with football, rules like intentional grounding, neutral zone infractions, and illegal shifting can be counter-intuitive and confusing. For people who are trying to get into the game for the first time, these rules are a major barrier of entry.

Next is the fact that, inherent in the nature of football, there is a constant starting and stopping throughout the whole game. One could very reasonably say that football never gets flowing. A short burst of activity happens (usually about five to ten seconds) and then is followed by a much longer period of down time (at least thirty seconds).

A blogger at Wired Magazine recently did an interesting study. He took a stop-watch and timed how much action actually occurs in an NFL game (he did the experiment during a Kansas City - Denver game). His results are pretty astounding:
So, during the two hours and 56 minutes the game took to complete, throughout the 60 minutes of regulation time, the ball was in only in play for 12 minutes and 8 seconds.The rest of the time, players were standing around, plays were being reviewed and I was being bombarded by a multitude of beer commercials and truck advertisements.
I believe that this never-ending lack of action in a football game, which is endimic in the sport, cannot be changed. It is how the game is played.

As that study mentions, indirectly related to this constant stoppage in play are the ridiculous amount of commercial breaks that a viewer of a football game is subjected to. After living abroad and being away from football for a while, this really bothered me when I watched a bit of football while I was back home in December last year.

With commercials and a dragged out half-time, the average NFL game lasts a ridiculous three hours and fifteen minutes. College football games last even longer because the clock is stopped after every first down.

A couple years ago, I talked with an English bloke who'd studied at Pennsylvania State University. College football fans know that Penn State has one of the most storied traditions and best football teams in the country. Yet despite the great level of play this English man had been exposed to, he could not understand why everyone was so into American football. As he said, "People get together and stand around for three hours with an occasional play occurring on the field."

Despite the diatribe I'm currently going on against football, I am still a fan of the sport. Particularly, I like college football. I feel it has much more passion and pageantry than the NFL, which in recent years I've found to be stale.

My favorite team, the University of Kansas Jayhawks, have enjoyed an unprecedented amount of success (in their history) over the past few years. Getting to watch them from afar has been a treat.

I'm not saying football isn't worth watching or that Americans are silly for liking it. Instead, I'm saying that expecting people from abroad to sit down and watch a three hour plus game with all sorts of crazy rules being played by players and teams that they are vaguely familiar with is quite a tough sell.

And the NFL is having trouble getting a foot-hold in China for these very reasons.


Shepherd Snapshots said...

Interesting post, Mark. I prefer NFL football over college, but college basketball over the NBA. I also have met many people who don't get why Americans love football. But not here in Canada... they like it too (not love it, that would be hockey)...or at least their own CFL.

Unknown said...

Wow, thank you so much I relate to this a lot...I'm reposting it on my blog (with due credit to you of course).

Vrani said...

Maybe Chinese people don't realize how much you are supposed to drink when you watch football...Don't they know about the shot-every-first-down rule?

Mark said...

That'd be pretty fun with baijiu!

Anonymous said...

Maybe they can grow an NFL equivalent of the NBA's Yao Ming ... kicker is too lame, quarterback a bit ambitious, perhaps a wide receiver, as easily accessible position to follow. I'll tell the sporting commission to start the test tubes up.

Anonymous said...

Great take on why the NFL will mostly be a North American favorite, and (at best) a fringe element abroad.

It made me reflect upon Cricket, of all things, and how it is mostly very little play over a very long period of time, confusing rules, etc. Its appeal is mostly in commonwealth countries, or its former colonies (take India, Pakistan and Jamaica into consideration).

Love it or hate it (and I hate pretty much all major professional sports - soccer, football, baseball, basketball) - the NBA and FIFA pretty much cover THE world sports, with NBA placing a respectable second (and growing).

terry said...

sorry but international rugby is by far bigger than the NBA. In fact, rugby is second only to soccer as far as team sports are concerned. Yeah, they even play rugby in China.
In countries where rugby has been imbedded, it's almost impossible to try and establish American football. The Brits (and the French who also play a lot of rugby)had a jumpstart when they took their sports and made it tradition in their colonies at the height of their empire. America is a century too late.
I just can't see China embracing Am. Football, it's just not part of their sports culture of basketball, badminton and ping-pong.

Mark said...

sorry but international rugby is by far bigger than the NBA. In fact, rugby is second only to soccer as far as team sports are concerned.

I don't believe this for a second.

terry said...

well believe it

the NBA doesn't even make the top 10

Mark said...

This is the best response I can come up with:

Wikipedia that, my friend!

I know it doesn't show basketball being at the very top. But it does show basketball being higher than rugby (which is not listed in the top ten).

Personally, I don't think your list of "the biggest sporting events in the world" proves that rugby is the "second biggest sport in the world."

The rugby world cup happens once every four years. The NBA is a professional sports league. The English Premier League and NBA are in a a league of their own when it comes to sports leagues (not once every four year tournaments). The two aren't comparable.

And I'll bet a large sum of money that there are at least ten Chinese people familiar with the NBA for every Chinese fan of rugby.

Anonymous said...

I agree - the rugby claim is b. s. In many, many, many countries it is little more than a very glorified niche sport. A hobbyist past time. Outside of oddball cable broadcasts used to fill time, it doesn't receive mainstream broadcasting on terrestrial networks in North America, the middle east, and in Asia; and most of the "local" teams internationally are comprised exclusively of non-local participants (take South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China's rugby leagues, for example).

Mark: You're too kind with your "for every there are 10" when it comes to China, the Chinese, NBA and rugby. I'd bet the bank that it's something like, "For every million Chinese who know the NBA, there will be a person who knows what rugby is, but has never seen it, played it, and doesn't care for it."

Anyhow, let's not forget: basketball IS an olympic sport. Rugby? Nope!

That pretty much says it all when it comes to rugby, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

intentional grounding? there is nothing intentional about it. 15 yards and loss of a down, unless the QB is on the payroll of the opposing team. so i guess it must be tough to translate the terms, and the Chinese must be confused by all the carrying and none of the dribling. having grown up in China, I started really watching football in college. I didn't like it at first, and discontinuity of plays was a big part of my indiference. then as I understand more rules and just how beautiful some of the catches were, I couldn't stay away from the TV on saturdays. BIG 10 in the mornings, pac10 in the afternoon, sec at night.
Never liked NFL besides the superbowl commercials. If NFL wants the level of success NBA had, then they must teach kids in China how to play footnall. Starting from flag/tough football. it will take years to be profitble.

Anonymous said...

I am a much bigger NFL fan than college as well. I agree the commercial stoppages ruin the flow of the game. College is even worse though. Your numbers are a little off the average NFL game is three hours and four minutes and the average college game is three hours and twenty-two minutes. Three hours for a game is not ridiculous though because they only play one day a week. Baseball games often run longer and they play almost daily as does the NBA. An NFl halftime is only twelve minutes and a college halftime is twenty minutes. What they ought to do is add three minutes to the NFL halftime (it was fifteen minutes many years ago) and use the extra three minutes for commercials while cutting five or six commercials out during actual play. That way the commercials are still there but the action has more flow. In college football, simply cut halftime down to fifteen minutes.