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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."