Five-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady usually gets what he wants. And this week, while on a promotional trip to China with Under Armour, the Patriots’ quarterback expressed his wish to play a game in the country before he retires.
But in reality, how close is the NFL to playing a game in China?
The league clearly wants to expand its brand, and Asia is the most logical next stop in doing so. And having the most successful franchise in recent history with the most successful quarterback ever playing there would be a dream, but this type of request isn’t nearly as easy as it may sound.
Teams would face the obvious challenges: a flight of more than half a day, finding a window of time to play and broadcast the game that works for both Chinese and American audiences, finding a week that would suit two teams’ regular-season schedule without risking a competitive disadvantage in the week before or weeks after.
“I think we’d have a desire, if possible, for [the teams] to be West Coast-based because that helps with both the time-zone differences and the travel,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president of international and events. “And then thirdly we’d like to look at teams that have a strong connection with the Asian community both within the U.S. and a strong business and trading relationship with Asia. Again, that would lead you to look more closely at the West Coast teams.”
This isn’t the first time the NFL has toyed with a game in China. In 2007 the league tried to hold a preseason game in China between the Patriots and Seahawks leading up to the Summer Olympics in Beijing. That game was postponed until ’09 and was eventually canceled as the league focused its efforts on more manageable regular-season games in London, where travel and time differences weren’t as severe.
A year ago, reports surfaced that the Rams would play their 2018 season-opener in China—against San Francisco, according to the Sports Business Journal. Waller did not provide an official update to those reports on Monday, but regardless, the obstacles the league is facing are still very real. (It should also be noted the Rams won’t begin playing at Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park until 2020, so an international game in 2019 would also still be in play for the Rams while they remain in their temporary home as part of a league resolution.)
If and when the NFL does play a regular-season game in China, it would likely take place at Beijing National Stadium. The Bird’s Nest was built for the 2008 Olympics and now seats 80,000.
Waller said NFL interest among the Chinese is “growing well, particularly in digital consumption,” but of course it’s nowhere close to being the kind of draw as it is in America. The NFL saw about 7.5 million unique viewers from China across multiple digital platforms for Super Bowl LI, compared to 16 million unique viewers for Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals, Waller said. Meanwhile, in America, the five Finals games averaged about the same TV share as any regular season Sunday Night Football game on NBC.
The NBA, and basketball as a sport, had its seeds planted in China long before the NFL and American football, a sport with its rules and various scoring opportunities that is objectively tougher for the uninitiated to grasp. The NBA played two preseason games in Beijing and Shanghai in 2004 with former No. 1 overall pick and China native Yao Ming leading the Houston Rockets. The Chinese national team has finished in the top-eight in three Olympics since 1996, and the 22-year-old Chinese Basketball Association boasts 20 teams that have some of Asia’s best players as well as former NBA All-Stars.
“I think what you can take from the NBA is that they clearly have a long-term, thoughtful growth strategy and I believe we’ve followed the same path,” Waller said. “We’ve worked very hard to grow our penetration presence through digital, particularly through live-streaming and on-demand. I think we’ve still got a lot of work to do to get more of the sport played locally.”
A regular-season game in China could possibly be the spark the sport is yearning for from a country that makes up nearly one-fifth of the world’s population.
“…One day I hope that there are many games here and over the course of the year, because it’s such a great sport and because I love it so much,” Brady said while in Beijing. “To bring that here and to bring the discipline and to bring the incredible strategy involved, it’s just a great event and hopefully a lot of the Chinese people would enjoy it.”
There’s plenty of work to be done for just one game to be played on Chinese soil, let alone many over the course of a season. And Brady will need some good fortune if he wants to play in China before the end of his career. But the former sixth-round pick who just won his fifth Super Bowl has dealt with long odds before.