After taking in the Super Bowl at an Irish pub in Beijing on Monday morning, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos reflects on the history and future of American football in China:
Transplanting football to China has never been as easy as the transplanters hoped. Mao was a basketball buff, which is one reason why you’ll find a hoop in just about every village from Tibet to the Yellow Sea. In football, by contrast, the pads and balls and rhythms are idiosyncratic, and, for a while, the league put its hopes on trying to cultivate a Yao Ming for football, a Chinese national who might be able to cut it in the N.F.L., and bear on his (presumably ample) shoulders the hopes and merchandising money of the motherland. At one point, the league even helped train some big-boned Chinese soccer players to make the switch to field-goal kickers. But none of them reached the N.F.L. (I encountered one of the aspiring kickers a few years ago, after he’d played his first minutes of actual football, and he told me that he’d rapidly discovered that the “opponent will try to disturb you when you try to kick a goal.”)
The N.F.L. is no longer looking to groom its Yao Ming. Richard Young, the managing director of N.F.L. China, told me that he now compares his sport’s future to that of coffee. “Years ago, I took a Chinese friend to try a cup of coffee, and he choked down this black liquid and said, at the end of it, ‘Richard, Chinese people will never love coffee.’ And you know what? To this day, they still don’t have the big barista machines at home. But they’ll gladly go to Starbucks, and Starbucks is all over China. So coffee is not going to replace tea, and we’re not going to overtake soccer, but it doesn’t mean we can’t build a good business.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in November on the NFL’s latest attempt to bring American football to China through an interactive marketing event in Shanghai.