The weather is getting warmer, and more and more people are spending time outside. At the soccer field, I decide to go for a run. After a few laps in I notice out of the corner of my eye someone wearing football pads and a Tom Brady jersey throwing a football to someone else. Thinking that this was the guy who stole Tom Brady’s jersey, I decided to go say hello.
Living for an extended period in another country is never easy, especially when the cultures are extremely different from one another. One way to bridge that gap is to find people with similar interests. As a patriotic American in China with a chronic and incurable football addiction, this task is especially difficult. Leave it up to fate to randomly put me in the same place at the same time with Chinese students and working adults who also have a love for football.
As the 21st century has so far shown, the US and China are the two most dominant powers in international politics. With many reasons to do so, both powers should strive to avoid conflict and increase friendship between their peoples. That gives the NFL in a unique, and rare, opportunity.
The NFL Can Help Drive US-Chinese Friendship
In September 2016, Peyton Manning and other retired NFL players visited China to help promote football in the country. China has an arena football league (Chinese Arena Football League), however it hasn’t gained as much traction. Still, that doesn’t stop my new friends and I from playing football on this bright Sunday.
Not only do they like football as a sport, they watch games and follow players.
“My favorite player is Marshall Lynch” one of my friends says as we pass the football “No one can stop him.”
Another one of my friends, who was wearing the Tom Brady Super Bowl LI jersey, chimes in “My favorite is Tom Brady. He’s so good!” Even as I stood there wearing my Kansas City Chiefs hoodie, they would talk about Alex Smith and Travis Kelce.
As we continued to play football, working on footwork and going through tackling drills, I continued to think about how football as a sport could become big in China. After we decided to call it a day, they invited me to a social media group with around 120 people. All of them, the vast majority Chinese, had been playing football that day in different parts of Qingdao, China. They were excited to talk about football, but it also gave us a chance to get to know each other.
Pro Bowl Could be Great Asset to Increase International Footprint
Imagine if the NFL played a game in Beijing or Shanghai. What if they played the Pro Bowl, showcasing the NFL’s best for a market curious about a popular American sport? The NFL is already looking to increase its international footprint. The NFL will play four games this year in London and went to Mexico City for Monday Night Football last year. While overseas games are not ideal with the already rigorous regular season schedule, playing games outside the regular season may have to be an option. Playoff games and the Super Bowl would remain in the US, but the Pro Bowl could be a great expeditionary asset.
The time leading up to the Pro Bowl is full of activities for the players, their families, and fans. Keeping the existing structure, players could also take time to show fans in the host country how to play football. In that time, they would also have a chance to tour the host nation and expand their teams fan base. With the exchange of cultures the NFL will show that it is uniquely qualified as a diplomatic asset. The Pro Bowl game would not only boost the popularity of American football as a sport, but also the NFL as a brand, the teams represented, and the players participating, making this also a very lucrative opportunity.
According to a survey hosted by Nielsen, “7.9 percent of Chinese residents have shown interest in the NFL.” In a country of over 1.4 billion, that is roughly 180 million people, half the entire US population. Consider that this is with the NFL hardly being involved in Chinese sports, and the NBA being the dominant sports power. If the NFL, backed by its considerable financial arm, began to invest more in entering the Chinese market by playing a game in China, imagine how big that number could balloon up to.
Chinese Players in the NFL
In 2010, the Buffalo Bills drafted the first player of direct Chinese ancestry, Ed Wang. Wang’s parents, both 1984 Chinese Olympic track and field athletes, saw him off to play for Virginia Tech. After playing in only six games as a backup for the offensive line, he was cut. He would later bounce around to the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles before eventually becoming the Vice President of League Development for the Arena Football League of China.
The NBA has had considerable success by having Chinese players start and succeed for various teams. The NFL could latch on to similar success by drafting or working out players from China.
Interest in China
As I continued to get to know my new friends, they would talk about their favorite players. Marshawn Lynch, Tom Brady, and Antonio Brown where just a few names to be tossed around. All of them would talk about how they watch videos of their favorite players and try to learn from them.
“I like Marshawn Lynch’s physical style” one of my friends would say. “He runs through people, he makes his opponents fear him.”
The NFL not only can benefit from tapping into the Chinese market, but the US- China relationship as a whole would benefit. The constant exchange of culture, from the NFL and Chinese players and their respective fanbases, would only help to increase understanding.
During his April 2017 trip, Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed the US- China relationship as the “most important in the 21st century.” He also said before the trip that “there are 1,000 reasons to maintain the relationship and no reasons to end it.” The NFL is in a win-win position if it works to tap into the Chinese market. Not only will the NFL win, but the US- China relationship will as well.