US Football Popularity Peaks in China as Super Bowl Watched by Record 7.5M Viewers

The bad news is more viewers appeared interested in Lady Gaga’s performance at halftime than Tom Brady’s in overtime.

Sunday’s Super Bowl may be forever remembered as the first NFL championship to be extended into overtime, or it may serve as testament to the legacy of five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. But, as important as these milestones are, even more significant could be that the 51st Superbowl is the clearest indication that American-style football has a bright future in the Chinese market.

The Super Bowl was streamed live in China over the Weibo micro-blogging service, where a record-breaking 7.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the New England Patriots overcome a 25-point deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in a stunning upset.

However, Chinese viewers during the Monday rush hour weren’t enraptured by the storybook ending for the New England Patriots, which has been criticized in the Chinese media as being “fake” for being “too good to be true.” Instead, Chinese reaction to the Super Bowl have mostly focused upon Lady Gaga’s halftime show featuring of hundreds of coordinated drones.

Even Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing’s Super Bowl commercial for the popular empire-building video game Evony happened to cause a bigger sensation than the game itself on Chinese media.

So, do Chinese viewers actually care about American-style football?

The answer may seem pretty clear-cut in a country where soccer is made mandatory in public schools by its president. And yet, what may be China’s newest cultural phenomenon is growing by leaps and bounds.

According to deputy chairman Li Ke of Boulder Touchdown, a football training camp for Chinese youth, there are “approximately 20 million football fans” in China, a huge improvement from the estimated 1.6 million from six years ago.

Of this number, some 1.5 million Chinese viewers tuned in to watch weekly broadcasts of the 2016-17 season, said NFL China Managing Director Richard Young.

Zhang Qing, the CEO of Beijing-based sports consultancy Key Road, admitted that American-style football is too complicated and strange for the average Chinese viewer. And yet, Zhang said promoters of the sport has specifically addressed this problem with a long-term strategy.

“NFL China has been sowing interest for USA-style football in the country for some time now,” said Zhang. “Their initial strategy was to promote the sport in schools, hoping to popularize football through campus activities, competitions such as divisional championships. Afterwards, they extended popularizing activities to attract white collar workers.”

The NFL first began promoting football in China 10 years ago with clinics and promotions like “NFL on Tour” and “NFL Home Field” that toured China’s biggest cities. Last year, the NFL enlisted Peyton Manning to help promote NFL football in China by coaching a quarterback challenge contest.

And to reach out to younger fans, the NFL asked actor/singer William Chan to serve as its ambassador in China. To serve that end, Chan was reported to attended the Super Bowl and post updates of the game to his 21 million Weibo followers.

With all this in mind, Monday morning’s huge audience may be the biggest indicator yet that football is a growing trend in China.

“Although there’s not many of them at the present time, but the number of fans interested in football and the NFL in China continues to increase year after year,” said Zhang.

And yet, despite all of the NFL’s efforts, success in the Chinese market has been fleeting.

To date, China has never once hosted an NFL exhibition game. Fans encouraged by rumors that China may host its first NFL game next year should keep in mind that these same rumors have persisted as far back as 2007.

Another huge barrier for the NFL is the fact that there are very few Chinese football players. So although basketball was greatly popularized in China by the achievements of Hall of Famer Yao Ming (seen above attending the game), Chinese participation in the NFL is basically limited to the 2010 signing of fifth-round draft pick Ed Wang by the Buffalo Bills.

Will the NFL succeed in China? Will China’s middle class adopt an American tradition as part of their own?

Even though he remains optimistic, Zhang said the end zone is not yet in sight.

“In order to become an up and coming sport of the masses in China, US-style football has a long road ahead of it,” he said.

— A version of this article originally appeared on the Beijinger.