The Super Bowl has become a routine success, year after year the most-watched television event in America. So where might the National Football League be looking next for new fields to conquer? Try China.
The NFL is beginning to introduce football to the world's most populous nation. Selling no-huddle offenses and prevent defenses to the Middle Kingdom may seem an improbable task, but no one should underestimate the league's marketing skills.
The last two Super Bowls have been broadcast in China — a market of 300 million households — and the NFL has signed a five-year deal with a Shanghai marketing firm to broadcast more and produce a weekly show of football highlights called "NFL Blast."
Reebok is beginning to sell NFL merchandise in China, and the NFL has reached an agreement with a California game maker to sell "NFL Madden" video games in China.
But, you say, games and clothes are all well and good, but no one in China actually plays the game. The NFL's got it covered. It has started an 80-team flag-football league in Shanghai's middle schools and, this year, China will host the fifth world championship of flag football. It's not exactly a reservoir of pro talent like the universities of Miami and Tennessee, but you have to start somewhere.
It gets better. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is exploring the possibility of the league's playing two preseason exhibition games in China in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics there.
In preparation, Tagliabue might want to do something about what the Chinese call American football. They call it, after the shape of the ball, "olive ball." Fumbling the olive? Spiking the olive? The olive is on the two-yard-line? Won't do.
How far will this courtship of China go? The NFL is already talking about the possibility of franchises outside the United States, specifically mentioning Toronto and Mexico City.
Remember the marketing mantra. “There are a billion Chinese and if each one of them. . .” Beijing might not be all that terribly far behind.