NFL kicks off China broadcasts

Highlights program on CCTV to be joined by reality show

BEIJING -- Are they ready for some football?

Chinese viewers will get a dose of the National Football League when a 30-minute, Chinese-language highlights show debuts Thursday night on CCTV-5 -- the 24-hour sports channel of China Central Television -- at 11:30 pm.

Beginning Oct. 29, the highlights program will be preceded by a 16-episode reality show, "NFL Blitz," involving Taiwan pop band Mayday and their experiences with the NFL in the U.S.

The NFL is also offering streamed live and delayed game broadcasts with partners including Chinese Internet portal Sina.com.

This year's Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals was watched live by 2.2 million people in China, the league said. Former St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis, a Mandarin Chinese speaker, helped call the Super Bowl in 2004, with a CCTV crew. Live regular season games have appeared on Chinese TV before, along with compressed highlights broadcasts, with games edited down to one hour and explained with a combination of commentary and diagrams.

NFL efforts in China have gone through fits and starts. Basketball and soccer have prospered here, both as participant and spectator sports, and both sports have professional leagues in China. Three players -- including star Houston Rockets center Yao Ming -- have made it to the NBA so far, and several Chinese players have played for top-tier teams in English and German soccer leagues.

Live television has viewership has been hurt in part by the time difference between the U.S. and China. The traditional 1 p.m. EDT kickoff on a regular-season Sunday falls at 1 a.m. Monday here (2 a.m. when Eastern Standard Time is in effect). Sunday and Monday night games fall on Monday and Tuesday morning, respectively -- a time when the target audience of young Chinese men is least likely to be watching.

Fans of the game known in Chinese as "American olive ball" have yet to see their heroes play on local soil. In March 2007, the NFL postponed the "China Bowl," set for Aug. 8, 2007, exactly one year before the start of the Beijing Olympics, and which was to feature the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, until 2009, according to a statement made at the time.

"Our assessment is that Chinese fans would be better served if our game in China is played at a later date after we have launched our international series of regular-season games and more effectively paved the way for the introduction of our game into China," said Mark Waller, senior vice president of NFL International, when the China Bowl was postponed.

The NFL took the rap publicly for the game not moving forward, but several sources involved in the marketing and organization of the game said at the time that it was because Beijing's Workers Stadium, which was being prepared to serve as a soccer venue for the 2008 Olympics, was not going to be ready in time for the China Bowl.

Regardless of that game's cancellation, there are no current plans for an exhibition or regular-season contest in China.

The NFL's efforts to internationalize have been more successful in other markets. The 2007 and 2008 football seasons featured regular season games played at London's Wembley Stadium, with this year's edition slated for Oct. 25. An annual preseason game is played in Japan at the Tokyo Dome.

One factor that has limited the league's expansion in China is a lack of interest in the game on a local level. While soccer and basketball have massive followings in China, young Chinese men are turned off by the game's complexity and rough physicality. Efforts to develop NFL-caliber talent have focused on recruiting players who could serve as place kickers.
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