Louisa Lim, NPR
Gao Wei, 20, is one of four Chinese athletes handpicked to train under the NFL's China kicker program. He trained overseas for six months but is now back in China.
Gao Wei, 20, is one of four Chinese athletes handpicked to train under the NFL's China kicker program. He trained overseas for six months but is now back in China. Louisa Lim, NPR
Louisa Lim, NPR
Gao Wei cuts a lonely figure practicing kickoffs on a deserted field at Shanghai Sports University following his return from training. He was the college soccer team's goalkeeper, but now he sees his future in American football.
Gao Wei cuts a lonely figure practicing kickoffs on a deserted field at Shanghai Sports University following his return from training. He was the college soccer team's goalkeeper, but now he sees his future in American football. Louisa Lim, NPR
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets is guarded by Mehmet Okur of the Utah Jazz in April during Game Three of the quarterfinals of the NBA playoffs. Follwing Yao Ming's success, the NFL is searching for its own Chinese star.
Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets is guarded by Mehmet Okur of the Utah Jazz in April during Game Three of the quarterfinals of the NBA playoffs. Follwing Yao Ming's success, the NFL is searching for its own Chinese star. Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Call it "the Yao Ming effect." Following the success of the basketball giant in bringing millions of Chinese viewers to NBA games, talent scouts are scouring China for the next homegrown sports star to open up the world's largest consumer market.
But for the NFL, it's an uphill battle. The league has launched an NFL China Web site, but the inaugural China Bowl, a preseason game between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks that was scheduled for August in Beijing, has been delayed for two years.
"We looked at our market here in China, and we weren't ready at this point," said Kevin Chang, the NFL's international media manager. "The fans ... didn't have enough awareness, didn't know enough about our sport to really become really hyped up and involved for the NFL China Bowl."
There was a launch party for the new Web site at Shanghai's hottest bar, featuring Patriots cheerleaders in shiny blue jumpsuits waving silver pompoms. But one athlete who had hoped to be the face of the NFL in China was missing.
Gao Wei, 20, wasn't invited to the launch, despite having just returned from six months overseas as one of four Chinese players handpicked to train as NFL place-kickers. NFL officials say Chinese athletes have the psychological focus to withstand the intense pressure that kickers face. However, observers have decried the kicker program as a stunt that exposes Chinese players to maximum publicity while shielding them from the contact nature of the sport.
Gao Wei said he knew nothing about American football before last July.
"Before I started, I thought it was a very violent game," he said. "Most Chinese think that. But now I see the game's beauty — from the strategy to the skills to the rules, they're all exciting. I haven't entirely grasped the game, but at least I can understand a match now."
Gao Wei was plucked from Shanghai Sports University, where he was the college soccer team's goalkeeper. He said the training — first in Oregon, then at NFL development camp in Europe — was hard work but rewarding. But he said he's sorry he never got to play in a real competition, even after the kicker for the team he had been training with was injured.
"I prepared very fully, but before the game, the [manager] said the NFL had told him I'd never taken part in a game, and I could get injured," he said. "It was a real pity, but maybe the NFL wanted to protect me, because they thought the China Bowl was more important."
His experience illustrates the difficulties the NFL faces in its search for its own Yao Ming: The contact nature of the sport is alien and off-putting to many Chinese, and even touch football leagues are in their infancy in the country. Moreover, land for football fields is scarce, and equipment is too expensive for the average player.
Despite that, Gao Wei said he sees his future in American football and he will keep training on his own — with the aid of DVDs — to get ready for 2009.
Kathryn Kelly, the NFL's event manager, denies the would-be kickers have been let down.
"The kicker program has been a success. They've all reached the level of collegiate football playing in just the short nine months that they've played the sport," she said. "We continue to work on an ongoing basis with all four kickers that have partaken in the kicker program, so it would be quite farfetched to suggest that they've ever been abandoned."
But for the next two years, NFL fans in China will have to settle for televised games instead of the real thing. One disgruntled fan says it's like being told you've won the lottery, then having to wait two years to pick up your prize.
For the wannabe kickers like Gao Wei, the stakes are higher still — they have abandoned the sports they were raised to play and put their futures on hold to pursue an American dream in China.