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NFL Searches China for Its Own Yao Ming

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NFL Searches China for Its Own Yao Ming


NFL Searches China for Its Own Yao Ming

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Well, call it the Yao Ming effect. The basketball giant has succeeded in bringing millions of Chinese viewers to NBA games. And now, talent scouts are scouring China for the next star to open up the world's largest consumer market for other sports. For the National Football League, it's an uphill struggle.

As NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Shanghai.

(Soundbite of song "Wild Thing")

LOUISA LIM: The music is pumping at Shanghai's hottest bar. New England Patriot Cheerleaders in shiny blue jumpsuits are waving silver pompoms as they leap up and down. A cheerleader named Lindsey(ph) says they're here to celebrate.

LINDSEY (New England Patriots Cheerleader): American football is very new. It's much newer here. But I think the people are being very receptive. So we're excited. It's going to be very big here.

(Soundbite of song "Play That Funky Music")

LIM: That's what the NFL is hoping as it launches its NFL China Web site. But despite those cheerleaders' (unintelligible), they've just suffered a big blow. The inaugural China Bowl, a preseason game between the Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks scheduled for August in Beijing has been delayed for two years.

NFL's international media manager Kevin Chang explains why.

Mr. KEVIN CHANG (International Media Manager, NFL): We looked at our market here in China and we weren't ready. At this point, the fans, again, 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.

LIM: Despite the glitz and glamour, one athlete who'd hoped to be the face of the NFL in China is missing.

Twenty-year-old Gao Wei(ph) cuts a lonely figure as he practices kickoffs on a deserted sports field. He wasn't even invited to the launch despite having just returned from six months overseas as one of the four Chinese players handpicked to train as an NFL placekicker. NFL officials say Chinese athletes have the psychological focus to withstand the intense pressure kickers are under.

But observers have decried the kicker program as a stunt, exposing the Chinese players to maximum publicity while shielding them from the contact nature of the sport.

Gao Wei says he knew nothing about American football before last July.

Mr. GAO WEI (Athlete): (Through translator) Before I started, I thought it was a very violent game. 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 understand it now.

LIM: He was plucked from Shanghai Sports University where he was the college soccer team's goalkeeper. He says the training - first in Oregon, then at NFL development camp in Europe - was hard work but rewarding. But he's sorry he never got to play in a real competition. Even after injury took half the kickers to the team-heaping training ways.

Mr. WEI: (Through translator) I prepared very fully. But before the game, the manager said the NFL had told him I'd never taken part in the game and I could get injured. It was a real pity but maybe the NFL wanted to protect me because they thought that China Bowl was more important.

LIM: This 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. Indeed, even touch football leagues are in their infancy here. Moreover, land for football fields is scarce and equipment too expensive for the average player.

Despite that, Gao Wei says he sees his future in American football. And he'll keep up his training by himself with the aid of DVDs ready for 2009.

Ms. KATHRYN KELLY(ph) (Events Manager, NFL): The kicker program has been a success. They've all reached the level of collegiate football playing in just the short nine months.

LIM: Kathryn Kelly, the NFL's event manager denies the would-be kickers have been let down.

Ms. KELLY: We continually 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 have ever been abandoned.

LIM: But for the next two years, NFL fans in China will have to settle for televised games rather than the real thing. It's like being told you've won the lottery, one disgruntled fan told me, then having to wait two years to pick up your prize.

For the wannabe kickers like Gao Wei, the stakes are high still. They've abandoned the sports they've been raised to play and put their futures on hold, all to pursue an American dream in China.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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