Few entities take itself more seriously than the NFL, so of course the league thinks China is ready for American football. What repressive foreign government wouldn’t love a wide receiver’s touchdown dance?
Planting a flag in London is one thing – and not a very successful thing, by the way. Planting a flag in China is so out there, it might as well be 6,800 miles from New York. Oh, wait, it is 6,800 miles from New York.
The NFL is hoping to play a regular-season game in China in 2018 for the first time in league history. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out its thinking. It sees a Chinese population of 1.38 billion people and figures that even the smallest percentage of people who fall in love with the game can fill stadiums week after week. It sees a massive economy … and it sees a massive economy.
The NFL wants to own the world. It has been trying to get a toehold in London for 30 years. I was there for a Bears game in 2011, and the buzz was that of a flat pint. Two days before the game, you had to flip through 20 pages of the Times of London to get to a story about the Bears-Buccaneers showdown. The story was about Mike Ditka.
It takes a huge amount of hubris to believe that you can export a sport to another country and another culture. It has taken decades for soccer to get where it is in this country, and as a professional sport, it hasn’t gotten very far. Just because something is loved in one part of the world doesn’t mean it will be loved in another. China might relate to commissioner Roger Goodell’s iron fist, but to football? Hard to see it.
You can’t blame Bears chairman George McCaskey for not wanting to give up a home game to play overseas. Home games are supposed to a big advantage, thanks to the home crowd. That McCaskey is a member of the league’s international committee tells you that even the people involved see inherent problems.
But here comes the NFL anyway, even if the teams and the world aren’t quite ready yet.