The NFL's China experiment was supposed to happen in 2007, in advance of the Beijing Olympics. Billed as the China Bowl, the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks were scheduled to play a preseason game in Beijing on Aug. 9, 2007.
But fearing it wasn't ready to hold a game half a world away and knowing it might get only one chance to attract Chinese fans to a sport they didn't inherently know, the league punted. It was already about to hold its first regular-season game outside of North America, at London's Wembley Stadium between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins. Initially, the league rescheduled the preseason game in China for 2009.
Ultimately, it canceled the game altogether. "We were nervous in our ability to execute well," said Mark Waller, the NFL's executive vice president of international. "We took the view that the longer-term strategy of playing regular-season games had to go well in the first year. If we did a first game that didn't do well, we probably wouldn't get other teams to participate."
So London took precedence.
This season, the NFL will play three more regular-season games in London, bringing the total to 17 games there since 2007. There also will be one regular-season game in Mexico City in November. And by 2018, the league expects to make its long-delayed debut in China with a regular-season game.
The Los Angeles Rams are expected to be one of the teams to play in China, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in March that the league has "multiple teams that are interested," but not everybody is crazy about the idea. Executives from teams such as the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, two of the NFL's glamour franchises, are on the record with their objections. With so much at stake each week, there are concerns that flying half a day or more each way could put a team at a competitive disadvantage -- for that game and beyond.
The NFL is undeterred. Waller said he will visit China to scout stadiums in Beijing and Shanghai later this month. The NFL's international committee will meet at the end of April and then share its findings with ownership in May. At another owners meeting in October, the league likely will try to finalize a plan for playing a game in China in 2018.
Added Waller: "We don't need a selling point. I don't think anybody doesn't understand the opportunity in China. It's the world's largest market, the world's most developing sports market. There's no real local sport that currently dominates. There's huge interest in sports and athletes, which is growing, and a huge land of opportunity."
The NBA has been in China for more than two decades. It opened its first office in Hong Kong in 1992 and now also has offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei employing more than 100 people. In 2004, the NBA became the first American professional sports league to play games in China, with two preseason games between the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings. There have been 18 more preseason games played there since.
According to a 2014 Sponsorship Intelligence report, basketball is the No. 1 team sport in China and the NBA is the most popular sports league. According to an NBA spokesperson, more than 690 million fans in China watched the NBA during the 2014-15 season, and the NBA is the most followed sports league on social media in China with more than 108 million followers on Sina and Tencent, China's most powerful internet company and ESPN's official digital partner in the region.
The NFL wants a piece of that action -- and those dollars.
The league opened a small office in China a decade ago that has focused mostly on building media distribution there. It now has seven digital partners that stream games live across China as well as more than a dozen regional television distribution networks that also carry games. As a result, Waller said, the NFL has gotten "some really quite encouraging numbers" regarding fan interest. Waller said there are approximately 18 million NFL fans in China -- "a small number in China [but] a good number in terms of a fan base," Waller said -- and upward of 4.7 million people who streamed games or followed online.
Also, Waller said there are an average of almost 600,000 people following "Sunday Night Football," which in China takes place on Monday mornings. "The demographic we've got is interesting: affluent, young, very U.S. oriented, where maybe they studied here," Waller said. "A lot of them have visited here and have a strong interest in following things American. It feels like there's a confluence of factors within China that make us confident we should do more to stimulate interest."
While expanding into China would open up a potentially massive revenue stream for the league, its teams and ultimately its players, not everyone is jumping at the opportunity to play half a world away. Packers president Mark Murphy is on the NFL's competition committee and is not interested in his team playing in China. "We would not be in support of that," Murphy said at the NFL owners meeting in March. "That's such a long trip. If they do it, it would make sense for West Coast teams -- shorter trip for them. But that wouldn't be something we would want to do."
Giants owner John Mara, who agreed to play in the first regular-season game in London, also is not interested in playing in China. "I think there's a feeling that our game could be very attractive over there and generate a lot of interest," Mara said. "But I'm sure not volunteering to play over there. That's a tough trip. I don't know how you do that. You certainly have to give them a week off afterward. And even a week before -- it's a pretty tough trip." That it is.
Coaches and players are creatures of habit. They like routine. They demand competitive balance. Any scheduling quirk -- such as having to play three consecutive road games or multiple games against teams coming off bye weeks -- prompts outrage. Having to travel to China would be more than just a scheduling quirk. But teams also weren't thrilled when the league began its International Series in London in 2007, and they adjusted. The first London game purposely was between East Coast teams, for whom the travel would be the least grueling. Teams always have a bye week the week after playing in London.
While there are different strategies for dealing with the travel and the time change, some teams, such as the Atlanta Falcons in 2014, have found that spending a week in England is the way to go. In all, 20 franchises have played in London, some multiple times. The Jacksonville Jaguars have played a game in London in each of the past three years and will continue to do so through 2020.
While he is not interested in his team playing in China, Jaguars owner Shad Khan said he thinks expanding into Asia would be good for the league. "We've got our commitment in London, but certainly I'm delighted" that the league wants to play in China, Khan said. "I think it's really the right thing to do, and I find this really kind of refreshing that three years ago when we were talking about London it seemed like kind of a crazy idea, and now playing in Mexico, China, Brazil, all of those are very real possibilities. ...
"What's interesting is there's a lot of volunteers now to play these games, which I think is healthy. It's awesome. There's a huge amount of interest for this."
The NFL's effort to make playing in China work is ongoing. The league needs a stadium, such as the Bird's Nest in Beijing, that has sizeable locker rooms and the technological infrastructure to host an NFL game. It also needs training facilities and hotels to house teams. But a regular-season game in China in 2018 is the goal, as is replicating the successes the league has had in London.
"I would hope we've learned a lot from 10 years and 14 games -- 17 games by the end of this season -- in terms of how to manage the logistics well on behalf of the teams," Waller said. "Give them familiarity and the repetition of schedule they're used to. Hotels are important, the right meeting rooms. You know coaches. They're very much focused on routine. I think we'll be able to do a good job on the routine side.
"Ultimately success has to start with, 'Do the teams feel they can go there and play at the highest level and then come back and play at the highest level?'" Mark Waller, the NFL's executive vice president of international
"Culturally, it will be very different than London. ... We'll do more work in terms of preparing them [teams] on what to expect. ... Ultimately success has to start with, 'Do the teams feel they can go there and play at the highest level and then come back and play at the highest level?' When we started in the U.K., that was really what we focused on, making sure that's what worked for the teams. If the teams are happy, they go back happy. They can go back and compete. Then other teams will believe they can do that, too."
They're not going to have a choice. The league postponed playing in China in 2007. It's not going to do that again.
ESPN Green Bay Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Jacksonville Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco contributed to this story.