BEIJING (Reuters) - As the widespread coverage of Yi Jianlian’s NBA move reaffirmed China’s love affair with basketball, a first-round pick from the 2004 NFL draft was in Beijing on Friday to promote “America’s favorite sport”.
New England Patriots tight end Ben Watson and a delegation of NFL and Patriots officials are aiming to raise the profile of a sport barely known in the world’s most populous country.
Aware of the scale of their task, the NFL has so far concentrated on developing the non-contact version of American football in schools.
“We’re here to encourage and support those 5,000 kids who are playing flag football here in China,” Watson told reporters.
“Hopefully with the development one day there’ll be a Yao Ming of the NFL. We know the Chinese have a great tradition in athletics and we hope they can continue it in football.”
Yao and now Yi have helped make the NBA one of the most popular forms of entertainment in China. NFL games, by contrast, are broadcast tape-delayed to tiny audiences in the early hours of the morning.
“We are late but that just means we have to work twice as hard,” Gordon Smeaton, NFL vice president international, told reporters.
The postponement until 2009 of the inaugural China Bowl between the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, which had been scheduled for this August, was not a blow but a two-year window to develop the league’s profile, Smeaton added.
It also presents them with the possibility of playing the game at the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, currently under construction for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Smeaton conceded, however, that the league would have a lot of work to do over the next two years to fill all 91,000 seats.
Well-educated, affluent young men in China’s main urban centers would be the league’s targets and new television deals and the use of other more cutting-edge broadcast platforms would play a role in the growth of the league’s profile, he said.
The fans would have to be relatively prosperous as the replica Patriots jersey going on sale in Beijing this week will sell at 680 yuan ($89.30), a huge sum in a city where average disposable income is still just 19,978 yuan a year.
Watson said one of the most important messages he wanted to get over to the Chinese was that anyone could play the sport.
At 6ft 3in (1.9m) and 255 lbs (115.6 kg), the 26-year-old is very much the personification of the hulking NFL player.
“Football’s not all about athleticism, it’s about strategy and teamwork and these things are deeply rooted in Chinese culture,” he said.
“People come in all shapes and sizes. You’ve got guys like Yao Ming here and I was in the Pearl Market the other day and I saw some guys bigger and stronger than me.
“We’re not here to start a new NFL, we’re coming here to try and tell people who think it’s impossible to play American Football that it’s not. Everything starts somewhere.”