NFL has Chinese TV deal, flag football leagues

Updated: May 12, 2005, 11:57 AM ET

SHANGHAI -- The National Football League is digging in its heels in China, challenging the nation's 1.3 billion people to tackle a sport that for most is no more than a name.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told Reuters on Thursday that the league he heads -- one of the most successful in the United States -- has its work cut out in China promoting "olive ball," as the sport is locally known.

"I'm not about splash and drama," Tagliabue, a former lawyer, told Reuters in an interview during his first official trip to China to promote the league. "I'm into the long term."

The NFL is wildly popular in the United States, where the Super Bowl is usually the most watched TV program of the year and TV broadcasting contracts go for more than $1 billion annually.

But it is a latecomer to China compared to the rival National Basketball Association, whose popularity has jumped with the 2002 addition of Yao Ming to the Houston Rockets.

While NBA games have been broadcast nationally in China for years, the NFL made its first such broadcast -- a Super Bowl game -- just last year.

Another national Super Bowl broadcast this year drew a relatively modest 19 million viewers, far fewer than the 30 million the NBA estimates tune into one or more games each week in China during the sport's regular season.

The NFL's latest Super Bowl broadcast was part of a broader five-year deal that it signed with Shanghai Media Group, China's second largest media company, which includes the rights to games as well as related programing development.

Tagliabue declined to discuss the value of the contract but acknowledged that money was not an issue for the league at this point in its China development.

The NFL has yet to even open a China office, preferring to work through an agent.

By comparison, the NBA's China office has a full-time staff of about 15, and now posts annual China revenue in the tens of millions of dollars.

"I don't worry about money when I'm trying to build a sport," said the 64-year-old Tagliabue.

In keeping with his low-profile style, Tagliabue said he was less focused on a big-time event like bringing an exhibition game or team to China, though discussion of such items will be on the agenda when he travels to Beijing later this week.

Instead, Tagliabue said, he's trying to build awareness through a series of recently formed flag football leagues at Chinese middle schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and more coverage of games and other TV programming of the sport.

"It's a decades-long process," he said.