China fascinates American sports leagues, and for good reason. China has 1.4 billion people to whom American sports can be marketed, and from whom a lot of money can be made.
That’s why the NBA has embraced China, and that’s why the NFL has tried for more than a decade to figure out how to do the same.
The Patriots and Seahawks were supposed to play a game there in 2007, and then in 2009. It never happened, to the chagrin of Tom Brady. In recent years, reports have bubbled up about playing a game in China, but logistics (and concerns about air pollution) have gotten in the way.
Even now, the NFL has its eye on China, doing deals to distribute NFL content and striving to find a way to play one or more games there. In 2016, an indoor football league backed by Ron Jaworski and Dick Vermeil launched in China. And that’s when we posed for the first time a question that rarely has been asked: Why China?
China continues to be a communist regime, and its human-rights record remains atrocious. But the sheer concentration of human beings who can eventually be placed under the sports spell makes it very fertile ground for the NFL.
But given the wildfire that started with a simple tweet from the G.M. of one NBA team, the NFL probably is feeling somewhat relieved that it’s currently not embroiled in an international incident that threatens to choke off the golden goose the NBA has been nurturing there.
From a business standpoint, it’s far better to have never exploited a market than to be there and lose it. As money flows from that new market, budgets, expectations, and high-level executive incomes adjust accordingly. When that market goes away, as it may for the NBA, that’s a major problem.
So maybe it’s better for the NFL to never build up something that could be so easily squandered. Once that market exists, the NFL won’t want to lose it, which could mean engaging in the kind of self-censorship that undermines the overall integrity of the operation.
It makes much more sense to focus on expanding to countries with governments that properly respect the rights of its people. But the NFL has 1.4 billion reasons to continue to be tempted to find a way to cultivate more and more fans in China, even if the transaction includes eventually forfeiting a slice of its soul.