NFL hoping rules, jargon doesn't prevent Chinese from learning game
BEIJING -- Are you ready for some "Mei shi gan lan qiu"?
The NFL is intent on finding out if that is indeed the case in China. The league is venturing into untested territory and hoping the country's vast marketplace will respond to its product.
Clearly, there are details to sort out. For one, the language. The sport's vocabulary may resonate from Maine to Maui, but it's a poor fit in Chinese. This, after all, is a country where American football is largely unknown.
"We've had to come up with an entirely new nomenclature for the sport," Gordon Smeaton, an NFL vice president, said Friday during a promotional tour with the New England Patriots. "This is a situation we don't face in any other country and it will take some time."
For the record, in Chinese the game is known as "Mei shi gan lan qiu," which can mean "American-style rugby" or "American-style olive-shaped ball," depending on the translation.
A touchdown is a "da zhen."
The quarterback is the "si fen wei" -- the one-fourth position.
And then there are the byzantine rules. New England Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson has been spending a few days trying to explain strategy and tactics to Chinese fans and reporters.
"We need to teach about throwing and catching and some of the rules of the game," Watson said. "About where players line up. The game is almost like a chess match."
Basketball has been played for 100 years in China. Baseball is an oddity, but at least it has roots. The NFL may be the most popular game in the United States, but it arrived in China only a few years ago and is playing catch-up in a country of 1.3 billion with a swelling middle class.
"I think the reason we might be further behind is we're not an Olympic sport," Smeaton said. "The NFL has only been active in China for the last four years. I suppose we are further behind, so we have to work twice as hard."
For now, the NFL is thinking small. It's been sponsoring a school-age flag league involving 5,000 players. An NFL game is shown weekly on China's state-run CCTV. Smeaton said the NFL is about to announce a "much broader distribution of games" in the country. It may also change viewing times and may add more live telecasts. He said the annual Super Bowl telecast drew up to 10 million viewers.
Everything starts somewhere. In America, football just didn't start off in the NFL. It started off as a small game that people looked at as kind of crazy. Now it's the most popular game in America.
Patriots tight end Ben Watson
"The audience for the weekly game, we're happy with a couple of million people watching the game," Smeaton said. "That's where we are."
He hinted that the NFL might use China as a market to test new technology. He also talked up online games.
"We see a day in the not too distant future when Korean NFL fans will be on line with Chinese fans in Shanghai, or with Indonesians or with Tokyo."
The NFL's target in China is men, ages 16-30, who have traveled and are interested in foreign cultures. That's as many as 50 million people.
The NFL has sputtered selling American football in Europe, and on Friday folded its developmental league there after 16 years. NFL Europa reportedly was losing about $30 million a season.
Smeaton suggested China would be a moneymaker with TV eventually generating revenue.
"Once we get enough of a fan base, we expect that companies will come on board [as sponsors]," Smeaton said.
The Patriots are ahead of most NFL teams in exploring China. It has a Chinese-language Web site and a director of Chinese business development. The team's replica jersey went on sale this week in China for $90.
"Any league in China would be years and years away," Smeaton said. "The developmental work takes so much time because you have to develop athletes. But you cannot snap your fingers and make that happen."
The NFL is also trying to recover from a minor embarrassment. It planned a preseason game in Beijing in August -- between New England and the Seattle Seahawks -- but scrapped it on short notice. The NFL said it could not stage that exhibition and the regular-season game between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants this fall in London.
Playing in Beijing in 2009 is the new target. The game may be held in the new 91,000-seat National Stadium, called the "Bird's Nest," which is going up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"This now gives us an opportunity to build a fan base and we have another two years to get prepared," Smeaton said.
Watson said the NFL would benefit from the likes of its own Yao Ming, the Chinese center now starring in the NBA. But, for now, he sees a foundation forming.
"Strategy, teamwork, work ethic -- these are all things that are deeply rooted in Chinese tradition," Watson said. "To have a player in the NFL from China, from anywhere, this creates better international relations and obviously a big fan base."
"Everything starts somewhere," he added. "In America, football just didn't start off in the NFL. It started off as a small game that people looked at as kind of crazy. Now it's the most popular game in America."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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