The NFL, which will crown its champion Sunday in the quintessential American sporting spectacle of Super Bowl 49, is gaining fans globally with China leading the way.
That’s one of the findings in a study released on Wednesday by sports marketing research firm Repucom, which found that since 2013 interest in the NFL among the Chinese population has jumped from 1.7 percent to 7.9 percent.
The jump of just over six percentage points represents an extra 31 million people saying that they are now NFL fans.
That’s no surprise to Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, who has worked in recent years to introduce the complicated game to potential Chinese fans who have already embraced such sports imports as NBA basketball and English Premier League football.
“We are growing strongly in China, and I think it’s a direct result of having boots on the ground over the past few years,” Young told AFP.
NFL initiatives in China include a non-tackle flag football league involving 36 universities, a giant 18-wheeler lorry that last year toured nine cities offering videos showcasing the drama of the NFL, and for the past two years events where enthusiasts can get the feel of the “pigskin” as they test themselves catching passes and kicking field goals.
– Getting hooked –
Developing a deep understanding of the game among non-US fans is a challenge, even in Europe where American football has had a solid fan base for some time.
“It’s not an easy sport to learn quickly,” said David Tossell, the NFL’s director of public affairs for Europe. “Our approach is to give people enough hooks to actually want to make that journey by themselves.”
The “hooks” in Europe have included regular-season games in London, but for reasons of cost the NFL pulled the plug on NFL Europe, a professional league where both US and European players once honed their talent.
Without it, Tossell acknowledged, “We don’t have a clear pathway for a young, talented European player to go off into the NFL.”
That’s unfortunate, since the experience of the NBA has shown that an increased number of international players in the league in turn fuels interest overseas.
“We’re lucky that there have been a few players in the last few years who have made that journey,” he added, pointing to Germany’s Sebastian Vollmer, who will suit up for New England on Sunday when they take on Seattle for the NFL title.
“If you can say to kids ‘look at Sebastian Vollmer, you could be playing in the Super Bowl in 10 years’ time,’ that makes a big difference,” Tossell said.
“Look at China and the way the NBA exploded there with Yao Ming. We haven’t had our Yao Ming moment in Europe yet.”
Nevertheless, Repucom found interest in the United Kingdom has grown from 8.1 percent in 2012 to 12.3 percent, defining the increase as 1.86 million NFL fans.
Russia actually led the way in terms of the proportion of the population who say they are interested in the NFL, topping the list of countries outside North America with more than 10 million Russians calling themselves fans.
An upward trend is also evident in South America, with Brazil seeing an increase of 3.3 million in NFL fans.
– Grass roots growth key –
Glenn Lovett, president of global strategy at Repucom, said encouraging local participation will be key to fueling even more growth.
In China, Young said the independent American Football League of China, which has 12 teams in nine cities, has seen “spectacular” growth.
“We’re seeing the indoor arena league looking to set up there, we have a university league just starting,” Young said. “It’s interesting to see.”