BEIJING/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As millions around the world settled into couches and tuned into the Super Bowl on big-screen TVs on Sunday, fans in China watched the New England Patriots stun the Atlanta Falcons on mobile phones and tablets - on their way to work.
The National Football League is looking to score with viewers in China, where games often start during morning rush hour, via a push online. For the first time, the Super Bowl streamed live on popular messaging platform Sina Weibo.
The stakes are high for the league’s bid to tap the enormous potential of China’s 1.4 billion people.
U.S. sports leagues and media companies are increasingly looking to China’s market for growth. World Wrestling Entertainment, for example, is training Chinese athletes in hopes of turning them into television sensations.
As the Patriots mounted a stirring comeback against the Falcons, a major hurdle was that the Sunday afternoon U.S. kickoff was at 7:30 on Monday morning in China, 14 hours ahead of game time at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.
“I watched the first half when stuck in a traffic jam,” one viewer wrote in the Weibo livestream forum. “For the second half, I had to be careful not to be caught by my boss at work.”
Just over 3 million people tuned into the livestream to watch the game, according to a viewer count on the site. Other watched via platforms like Tencent and LeSports.
China’s interest in football, however, remains a challenge. The sport is still new to China, and the NFL is pushing tie-ups with more than a dozen platforms on regular television and online to reach viewers, even at rush hour, NFL China managing director Richard Young told Reuters in recent interviews.
“They watch (the games), they pause them. They get on and off the bus and on and off the taxi,” Young said.
The NFL wants to build enthusiasm in China and other overseas markets after a season in which U.S. television viewership dropped 8 percent, according to Nielsen data, to a weekly average audience of 16.5 million.
About 1.5 million people in China now watch live NFL matchups each week on digital platforms, Young said. Many are young people aged 20 to 30 who catch games on mobile phones as they commute, he said.
Some Chinese fans follow the league by watching only highlights rather than entire games. The NFL provides near-live recaps with a series of short clips that show big plays soon after they occur on the field.
The fan base in China - though small - has grown 1,000 percent over the past five years, Young said.
The Super Bowl broadcast in China featured Chinese graphics and announcers explaining the rules and plays. The NFL hosted “boot camps” for Chinese commentators to bone up on touchdowns, fumbles and other football jargon.
Hong Kong superstar singer and actor William Chan, the NFL’s China ambassador, tweeted about the Super Bowl in the run-up to the match for his more than 21 million followers on Weibo. He did not attend the game though, as had been expected.
Later this year, the league also plans to expand a fantasy football league it is testing called Tian Tian NFL, Young said.
Still, the NFL lags far behind sports such as basketball in China. Industry experts said many of today’s football fans in China are Americans living abroad or foreign-born Chinese.
“There is no existing fan base but for the expats and people who were educated and lived in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, the president of consulting firm Sports Corp Ltd and an adviser to NFL teams, who has worked in China for more than a decade. “That’s an enormous challenge.”
The social media drive may help, though, said Ed Desser, a former NBA television executive who helped popularize American basketball in China.
“You can converse with your friends or people who were complete strangers who happen to be watching the same game,” said Desser, now president of consulting firm Desser Sports Media. “It’s the virtual bar stool.”
Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing, Adam Jourdan in Shanghai and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Anna Driver, Alan Crosby and Michael Perry
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