Today, not many sports leagues can ignore China, which has become one of the most important markets or potential markets for top sports leagues from all over the world. This is true for the National Football League (NFL).
Since the league set up their China office in 2007, the NFL has been taking root in China for over 10 years. Recently, we sat down with Mr. Richard Young, Managing Director of NFL China, and talked with him about the league’s adventures in countries outside the U.S., especially in China.
When we asked about how the global expansion of the NFL was going, Young stated that the league’s expansion has been “going very well globally but [is] quite pocketed.” As Young told us, the focus of the NFL’s expansion is North America – Canada and Mexico. The UK and Germany have also been targeted by the league. When they came to Asia, the league took Japan and Southeast Asia into account but remained focused on China.
“The growth that we have seen has been excellent but very focused,” concluded Young.
As one of the successful examples of the NFL’s global expansion, what the league has been doing and gaining in the UK was stressed by Young.
“We have had instituted games in the UK…[and] have had a much longer -- now ten year -- game engagement in the UK, starting off with one game and moving to two and last year we had four games in the UK. All of these games are sold out. They are all sold out six, seven months before the game. This season’s games are virtually sold out already for October.”
“What we're seeing now is a real development of the fan. These fans are true fans, they're not just going to kind of watch the show that is in town. These are fans of American football and of the NFL,” stated Young.
In accordance with the league’s International strategy, Young introduced the NFL’s goal in China to us – to grow the fan base.
In Young’s opinion, it is the fan base that drives the growth of the business of any league around the world, this fan base then drives the media rights, sponsorship, consumer products or ticketing revenue. As a result, a league should first have a sound fan base before it can start expecting a return.
“If you try and put in the product before you have the fan base, you don't get the return,” added Young.
To achieve this goal, Young shared a “three-tiered” strategy with us during the interview. On the ground, the NFL has done a lot in helping encourage more people to experience the sport of American football although the league is not “directly involved”, such as assisting with staging flag football leagues and tournaments in China and helping to promote American football youth training programs with third-parties like Nike Sports Camps, Great Stone Gridiron and Skyway Football.
Meanwhile, the NFL has also launched a variety of campaigns to promote the sport.
“We also have organized events such as the NFL Experience which is a celebration of American football,” said Young, “We've had an NFL truck tour that drives around to different cities throughout China trying to give visitors an experience or a first touch [with] the sport of American football and the experience of the NFL at the very highest level.”
In the middle of their strategy, according to Young, is social media. As of now, both the NFL and the league’s 32 clubs have official accounts on Weibo and have been able to directly interact with their fans. Young also disclosed that they had seen a “tremendous growth” on this platform. WeChat has also become another important social media platform for the league.
On the other hand, the NFL features some celebrity KOLs who are popular among young people in China, such as Chen Weiting and Wu Yifan. “They have been our Super Bowl ambassadors for the last two years and [their involvement] draws in more fans in the sense that people say ‘oh I want to explore that’. Most people have heard about the NFL but they want to know more about it when they see that somebody that they admire and look up to also has an interest in that,” added Young.
The core of the NFL’s strategy is media. According to Young, the NFL’s television coverage in China “continues to be very strong with long-term partners like BTV, STV, Guangdong TV and numerous smaller provincial channels”.
In 2017, the NFL joined forces with Tencent, endorsing 3-year broadcasting rights to the platform. In Young’s eyes, this deal “has been tremendously successful.”
“We've been very pleased with our first year with Tencent,” said Young, “The quality of the game when people watch it, the studio coverage, the commentary, all of that has improved from last year. Tencent is investing into that and made it better and we've invested into it as well. They're good partners to have and it's been a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
Apart from media partners, Young also talked about the league’s commercial partners with us. In his opinion, the biggest opportunity and value that the league can bring to their partners is “the association with the NFL” itself.
“It's already a bit different because we are not as large as basketball and soccer, we understand that. Our fans are very much in the urban areas. They have higher disposable income [and] correspondingly higher education. They are very loyal to brands that associate themselves with what they (the fans) like. They’re cultural explorers, they’re very positive people [and] looking for the best quality in whatever they do,” explained Young.
At the same time, the NFL can also provide their commercial partners with the opportunities to become involved with the league’s grassroots, social media campaigns or the KOLs that are involved with the NFL.
Regarding how to help their commercial partners activate their NFL sponsorship, the league has found a good way to go by taking both sponsors’ interest and fans’ experience into account.
Today, many sports leagues are suffering from their dilemma of commercialization of the league and fans approval. But in Young’s opinion, “commitment to quality” is the NFL’s secret to balancing the two sides. “
“Each team only plays sixteen games in the regular season which means if you lose one game, you may not make the playoffs. So every game is meaningful. We don't have the volume of games of other leagues, but our games are meaningful and intense. You spend your time watching and we'll give you a return on the investment of your time,” explained Young.
This commitment will also benefit the sponsors, according to Young, “Sponsors want the fans to have a passion and following for it. Because once they have a following, they start to associate, ‘well this brand is associated with what I’m passionate about and therefore, I like that brand more’. Because if they (the sponsor’s brand) like what you like, you get a positive feeling towards that brand, and I think that's the commitment that the commercial partners have reacted positively to and liked from the NFL.”
Regarding how they can help their sponsors activate their sponsorship with the NFL, Young said that the league is careful to not have a whole roster of different sponsors, “where you get a Christmas tree of logos.” Instead, the league works closely to deliver value to their sponsors and “make sure that they stand out and have a unique connection with our fans.”
In addition, the commitment in terms of driving sales for the league’s sponsors was also emphasized by Young.
“It's got to [drive sales]. If the association with us does not drive more sales of your business or your product, then we’ve not done our job. That's ultimately our job, so we take that very seriously and focus on delivering that value. So that's really turned into a very good success,” added Young.
That is what the NFL has done and will do in China. In this interview, Young also admitted that while the NFL has faced many difficulties during their expansion in China, he also believes that “there are no difficulties that we feel we can’t overcome.”
“We're not overextending ourselves so that people touch it and say ‘oh well’. I’m not saying everybody likes it and loves it, but at least they say ‘hey that's of very high quality’. So you maintain that association with very high-quality sport and experience. Yes there are some things that probably slow us a little bit” said Young, “It takes more time for us to introduce our game and our league, the NFL, but nothing that’s not able to be overcome.”
Proofread by Raymond Fitzpatrick