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NFL, Patriots contingent touring China

BEIJING (June 29, 2007) -- The NFL has some details to sort out before American football makes it in China.

For one, the language. The all-American game fits poorly into Chinese.

"We've had to come up with an entirely new nomenclature for the sport," Gordon Smeaton said, an NFL vice president who was in the capital, part of a promotional tour with the New England Patriots to drum up interest in a sport largely unknown in the Middle Kingdom.

"This is a situation we don't face in any other country and it will take some time," Smeaton added.

For the record, in Chinese the game is known as "Mei shi gan lan qiu," which can mean "American-style rugby," or "American-style olive-shaped ball," depending on the translation.

A touchdown is a "da zhen."

The quarterback is the "si fen wei" -- the one-fourth position.

And the byzantine rules are tough, explained Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson, who's been hanging around for a few days to explain strategy and tactics to Chinese fans and reporters.

"We need to teach about throwing and catching and some of the rules of the game," Watson said. "About where players line up. The game is almost like a chess match."

Basketball has been played for 100 years in China. Baseball is an oddity, but at least it has roots. The NFL might be the most popular game in the Untied States, but it arrived in China only a few years ago and its playing catch up in a country of 1.3 billion with a swelling middle class.

"I think the reason we might be further behind is we're not an Olympic sport," Smeaton said. "The NFL has only been active in China for the last four years. I suppose we are further behind, so we have to work twice as hard."

For now, the NFL is thinking small. It's been sponsoring a school-age flag league involving 5,000 players. An NFL game is shown weekly on China's state-run CCTV. Smeaton said the NFL is about "to announce a much broader distribution of games" in the country. It might also change viewing times and might add more live telecasts.

He said the annual Super Bowl telecast drew up to 10 million viewers.

"The audience for the weekly game, we're happy with a couple of million people watching the game. That's where we are," Smeaton said.

He also hinted the NFL might use China as a market to test new technology.

"In may cases they (Chinese) are ahead of where the United States is and we can afford to try new things here in terms of distribution of our games that we might not in other markets where you have traditional broadcast relationships."

He also talked up online games.

"We see a day in the not too distant future when Korean NFL fans will be on line with Chinese fans in Shanghai, or with Indonesians or with Tokyo."

The NFL's target in China is men, ages 16-30, who have traveled and are interested in foreign cultures. That's as many as 50 million people.

The NFL has sputtered selling American football in Europe, and on June 29 folded its developmental league there after 16 years. NFL Europa reportedly was losing about $30 million a season.

Smeaton suggested China would be a moneymaker with TV eventually generating revenue.

"Once we get enough of a fan base, we expect that companies will come on board (as sponsors)," Smeaton said.

The Patriots are ahead of most NFL teams in exploring China. The club has a Chinese-language Web site, a director of Chinese business development -- Nicholas Krippendorf -- and its replica jersey went on sale this week in China for 680 yuan (approximately $90 U.S.).

"Any league in China would be years and years away," Smeaton said. "The developmental work takes so much time because you have to develop athletes. But you cannot snap your fingers and make that happen."

The NFL is also trying to recover from a minor embarrassment.

It planned a preseason game in Beijing in August -- between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks -- but the game was postponed on short notice. The NFL said the China announcement was premature, and it could not manage to stage both that game and the regular-season contest between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants that will proceed this fall in London.

Playing in Beijing in 2009 is the new target, and the game might be played in the new 91,000-seat National Stadium, called the "Bird's Nest," which is going up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"This now gives us an opportunity to build a fan base and we have another two years to get prepared," Smeaton said.

Watson, who has traveled sparingly outside the United States, said China felt close to home during his 13-hour flight from Newark.

"Strategy, teamwork, work ethic -- these are all things that are deeply rooted in Chinese tradition," Watson said, hinting the NFL could use a Yao Ming to promote itself. "To have a player in the NFL from China, from anywhere, this creates better international relations and obviously a big fan base."

"Everything starts somewhere. In America, football just didn't start off in the NFL. It started off as a small game that people looked at as kind of crazy. Now it the most popular game in America."

But in China?

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

Copyright 2007, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved

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