NFL Tries To Coax Chinese Into Liking Football

Chinese love World Cup Soccer and NBA basketball. Selling them NFL football has proven much more difficult. On Sunday, the NFL set up an elaborate, interactive exhibition outside a Shanghai stadium in an attempt to build a fan base in the world's most populous nation.

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Football is America's most lucrative professional sport. But selling it overseas has never been easy. The National Football League has slowly tried to make inroads in, of all places, China. Yesterday, it rolled out an elaborate, interactive exhibition in Shanghai.

NPR's Frank Langfitt was there.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's a Sunday afternoon outside a soccer stadium in shanghai, But it feels a lot like Middle America. Across the way here, you've got kids running the 40-yard dash. Right where I am, you have people running pass routes and most everybody who's participating is Chinese.

Inside, people are trying to throw passes to wooden cutouts of NFL players.

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LANGFITT: Charles Ho is waiting his turn. He plays receiver on a flag football team at Shanghai University of Engineering and Science.

CHARLES HO: (Through translator) We love this sport very much. We like the feel of tackling. In primitive times, humans used their bare hands to kill their prey. Football awakes that potential in us.

LANGFITT: Ho is wearing an Indianapolis Colts jersey, number 18, quarterback Peyton Manning. Ho's flag football team is one of more than 40 the NFL has set up here in recent years to spark interest.

But Ho and flag football teammate Shadow Li, say the American past time has yet to gain traction in the Middle Kingdom.

SHADOW LI: It's not very popular in China. But I think it takes time.

LANGFITT: Why do you think it's not popular?

LI: It's - equipment. It's very expensive. We are students, we can't afford this.

LANGFITT: Ho says football equipment here runs around 470 bucks a person. That's a lot of money in China, even in relatively wealthy Shanghai. Football is much more physical than traditional Chinese sports like ping pong and badminton. And Li says that frightens Chinese moms and dads.

LI: Especially in China, you know, they are very, very afraid their children will all be hurt.

LANGFITT: Yesterday was Zhu Jiaying's first experience with football, which is called gan lanqui or olive ball in Chinese. Zhu, who works for a German auto company, said she found it exciting, but had no idea how to play it herself.

ZHU JIAYING: Getting the ball is really difficult for me.

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LANGFITT: Hard to catch?

JIAYING: Yeah, it's really hard to catch it. It's not like the basketball, it's not round.

LANGFITT: The reference to basketball is telling. Football has almost no history here, but basketball is wildly popular. Christian missionaries introduced it to China more than a century ago.

Zhu played basketball in high school and follows the NBA. The NFL, hmm, that's a different story.

Do you know how football works?

JIAYING: No, sorry.

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LANGFITT: To help change that, the NFL staged a number of student football games yesterday. The late afternoon contest began with China's national Anthem and a coin toss by NFL Hall of Famer and former Dallas Cowboy running back Tony Dorsett.

Afterwards, Dorsett said to succeed, the NFL must keep teaching the game to as many Chinese kids as possible.

TONY DORSETT: I think the real challenge is creating the awareness. You've got to pound the pavement. When you don't understand anything, it's kind of hard to want it.

LANGFITT: Yesterday's event was the first of its kind in China and drew more than 3,500 people, most seemed to have a great time. But Shanghai has a population of 23 million, which suggests the NFL still has a lot of work ahead.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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