The last time the National Football League tried to bring America’s favorite sport to China, in the form of an exhibition game, the league pulled out at the 11th hour to avoid the embarrassment of empty bleachers. The league’s latest attempt to introduce American football to a Chinese audience was more modest: A traveling version of the “NFL Experience” interactive marketing event held Sunday in Shanghai gave locals – and plenty of Americans – a chance to punt, pass and kick like the pros. Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett was on hand to offer tips to the city’s small contingent of local players, like members of the Shanghai Sea Dragons. “When you take a hand-off, you don’t look at the quarterback you just run where you’re going,” Mr. Dorsett instructed nine-year-old Enoch Hung. “You’ve got to get down low.”
American football isn’t a natural sell in China. The game is complex. Kids don’t play it. The term ‘football’ here equals European soccer. Tackling seems dangerous. And the NFL so far lacks an ambassador on the scale of basketball’s Yao Ming (though Chinese American Ed Wang’s promising career with the Buffalo Bills is a start). In 2008, the NFL scheduled an exhibition game in Beijing between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, but then canceled it. The fear was that television coverage of an empty stadium would do more damage to the league’s image than good. Sunday’s festivities included non-tackling flag-football games. Venues offered chances to test passing, catching, kicking, running and jumping skills against benchmarks set by the pros. Four San Francisco 49ers cheerleaders were signing autographs. All five rows of the bleachers were full for a match-up of the two full-tackle club teams, the Shanghai Nighthawks and the Beijing Guardians (Shanghai won 35-to-7) on an Astroturf field next to Shanghai Stadium. The NFL said 3,500 people attended the events Sunday.
The NFL Experience, which has been featured on the sidelines of the Super Bowl in recent years, will move next to Guangzhou. With its renewed China push, the NFL isn’t only aiming to recruit a fresh generation of players, but is also trying to draw viewers from the world’s most populous nation. It has a new deal on the Internet to stream games live on a Chinese service called PPTV.