China's the goal

Updated: 2013-01-27 10:48

(China daily)

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As nation's exposure to the world grows, so has its interest in foreign sports. That's a potential market worth billions for overseas leagues, China Daily reports from Shanghai.

In eight days' time, bosses be warned: About 25 million people across China could show up to work late, or be distracted in the morning. That's how many Chinese people America's National Football League forecasts will watch the sport's spectacular, the Super Bowl.

Whether it's online, or through a broadcast deal on 19 channels across China, it's clear the NFL is taking the Chinese market seriously. The country is now categorized as one of the sport's five "priority" markets.

China's the goal

The Beijing Bombers and Shanghai Tigers battle it out in their China's Cup match in the southern city last year. The Tigers swept the two-match series. The sport of AFL has been spreading its popularity in China in the recent year. [Provided to China Daily]

"We want to achieve a goal of being a top-10 sport in China by 2020," said Richard Young, the managing director of NFL China.

"I've seen a lot of change here. Things people didn't think would be possible or probable have happened. Twenty years ago in a country dominated by tea, if you said it was going to become Starbucks' largest market people would have laughed at you. Same thing goes for red wine.

"The point is,if you have a good product there's no such thing as a cultural difference. People want good things. Quality has no cultural barrier.

"We believe we have the best sport in the world, in all honesty, and we do recognize that we have some challenges due to the fact that we don't have country versus country games and we don't compete in the Olympics, but we do believe there are openings here in China."

The NFL isn't alone in its Chinese ambition.

The Australian Football League now runs an annual academy for Australian Rules football in Guangzhou. The potential talent from a population of more than one billion people would be crazy to ignore, says the AFL China Athlete Academy Operations Manager Darren Flanigan.

"None of them have played a game of footy in their life, but we're hunting for someone who could transfer into an AFL environment," said Flanigan.

"It's a difficult transition. The very best sportsmen are mostly in the Chinese government system, so they're already enjoying the best resources. But there are some rare discoveries. There are juniors on farms 200 miles (320 kilometers) from Guangzhou that could have easily been missed, and could be good for us."

Like 20-year-old Chen Shaoliang. The student, who had never kicked a football until visiting the academy, was selected to go to Australia for the chance of being selected by an AFL club because of his rare and incredible ability to rocket into the air.

From a standing start, Chen can leap a staggering 86 centimeters off the ground. That's higher than any current player in the AFL, and is just four centimeters lower than legendary basketballer Michael Jordan. He's also incredibly quick.

"It was a little bit of a surprise to find someone that good outside the (Chinese) system," said Flanigan.

Despite the fact he is below average height for an AFL player, Chen could become an international rookie in the competition, but he's facing a few hurdles. He can't speak English, so would struggle to communicate with coaches.

"There's an enormous population of career-oriented, driven,high achievers in China. If we can bundle the option of success in a package with education, career opportunities or even an idea to create a name for them in their home country, we could find new hero for our fans," said Flanigan.

Creating a Chinese-born star could reap the competition millions through advertising and sponsorship.

A report by Price Waterhouse Coopers claims the sports market in China is expected to generate just shy of $3 billion in 2013 and should continue to grow at 3.3 percent in coming years.

"Changing the game: Outlook for the global sports market to 2015" also claims that sponsorship now accounts for 48 percent of total sports revenues in China.

The NFL says it hopes to one day have a match here, but doesn't want to rush in. "When is the question," said the NFL China boss Young.

China's the goal

NFL China has been making efforts in the past few years to popularize the sport in China. More and more Chinese are playing the sport as well as watching the Super Bowl. [Provided to China Daily]

"What we want to do is make sure that our fan base is at a level that it can sustain an actual NFL game at regular ticket prices. Most NFL games in the US sell out stadiums with a capacity of 60,000-70,000 people or more. We need to match that here.

"We're cautious. We don't want to hold a game just to say we've held a game. We want to hold a game and have success. We're getting closer, there is great growth in our fan base but it is a big undertaking."

Young says uncovering a potential superstar to play top-flight NFL games would be helpful, but even then that wouldn't be enough to cement popularity for the sport in China.

"You need to have a base following them in the first place. It's not going to change the whole world. You need to build up your base, have an office, grind out marketing. You need to work", said Young.

"The one thing I've learned is you have to work in China. If it seems easy you're probably going the wrong way. Any talent from China must deserve their place. Having someone who is not ready ultimately damages the sport."

Will Abbott, the president of the Shanghai Tigers AFL club, says international sports have the potential to take off in China. The Australian banker helps organize a competition for expats looking for a taste of home, but said locals are now among their numbers.

"One of our players met an English-speaking driver from Hangzhou who we managed to convince to throw on a pair of boots when we were short of players at a match a few years back. He's now a lover of the game and all things Aussie," said Abbott.

The Chinese player, nicknamed Jerry, ended up competing in the AFL's International Cup in Australia two years ago, a competition organized to try to increase the AFL's exposure globally.

"He'd never been overseas, but we raised enough money for him to compete," said Abbott. "And now he's helping coach some Chinese players at our club."

More than 50 Chinese people take part in Aussie Rules competitions in Beijing, Shanghai and Southern China. About 65 children aged between eight and 14 take part in a competition for American football in Shanghai alone, plus there's the three-year-old NFL flag competition which involves 44 universities.

Soccer and basketball are already well established as the top sports in China. Sales of NBA merchandise here put sales in the US to shame and more than 300 million people play the sport.

Major League Baseball has had a player development center in Wuxi since 2009 and is still hoping to uncover a rising star. The Chinese Baseball Association estimates about four million people play the sport.

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