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NFL China Comes To Redskins Park

Posted by Matt Terl on September 8, 2009 – 3:11 pm

International media crews are not an entirely unexpected sight at Redskins Park. Even though NFL Europa is now defunct, the NFL still works to expand the brand overseas, and every once in a while a foreign broadcast network will send a crew to see practice, talk to the players, and so on.

Still, a contingent of 32 people is always going to raise some eyebrows, doubly so when they hail from NFL China and include not only cameramen, producers, on-air talent, grips, and so on, but also an entire Chinese rock band.

Rookie offensive lineman Edwin Williams, for example, was approached about speaking to the crew, and responded, “NFL China?”

Yep. China.

“We are one of the five satellite offices of the NFL International Division,” Kevin Chang explained.

Chang is the Director of International Media for the League Office, and was traveling with the crew. “We have offices in the U.K., Canada, Mexico, Tokyo, and now Beijing,” he continued, “which opened in 2007. Our goal right now is really to build a fanbase, to put it in the simplest terms possible.”

One of the ways they’re doing that, understandably enough, is through media: getting games and highlights onto just about every information-consumption device there is, from televisions to mobile phones.

“The growth of American football in China is gonna be based on media exposure,” rookie defensive end Jeremy Jarmon said, after being interviewed by the crew. “People are going to have to sit down and watch it on TV and say, ‘Hey, this looks like fun.’ And from there you can form leagues and groups like they’re doing in most European countries, play flag football and other kinds.”

But marketing a sport like American football to the one-fifth of the world’s population that lives in China is even more complicated than that, mainly because the game itself is so complicated.

“You can’t just expect to throw an NFL game on television out there and expect everybody to come and enjoy it and really consume it,” Chang says. “So what we’re doing is actually producing some original programming for the Chinese market to really have them connect a bit more.”

The program they’re filming is a study not only of professional football, but of all the pageantry and ancillary stuff that really makes the game part of American culture. The group has been to colleges and high schools in addition to NFL cities, and they’ve explored everything from cheerleading to marching bands to — at Redskins Park — the equipment room.

At every stop, the members of the insanely popular Taiwanese rock band Mayday performs some kind of reality show-esque challenge having to do with American football. Here’s one of Mayday’s videos, just so you can get a sense of the band and their music.

In China, this is a band that sells out stadiums and aspires to be “the Beatles of the Chinese World”; here, they listened as Redskins equipment manager Brad Berlin got them ready for their equipment room challenge.

“I had no idea who they were until they were leaving,” Berlin told me, “and one of the producers was like, ‘You know who they are, right?'” He shrugged. “They were polite, and seemed like they were having fun and were totally into it, so that was good. Whatever. It’s all for the betterment of the game, whatever we can do to promote the game.”

This is a sentiment that Jarmon wholeheartedly agreed with, after addressing the cameras for a few minutes. “They asked me if I would be interested in coming over to China to teach American football,” he told me, “and I said ‘Absolutely. Let’s get me over there.’ I’d love to promote American football in another country. I’d go over there and claim I was a quarterback, go over there and be teaching people about three- and five-step drops.”

Williams took international football relations a step further. “Well, I knew some Chinese, so they asked me to speak some Chinese,” the rookie told me. “I actually just said ‘ni hao,’ which is ‘Hi’.” (And here, courtesy of NFL China’s Redskins page, is how to write out Jim Zorn‘s name in Chinese: 吉姆·ä½æ©. Never let it be said this blog isn’t educational.)

“Perfect pronunciation,” noted Stephanie Hsaio, Marketing Manager for NFL China, of Williams’s greeting.

Hsaio, who interviewed both players, continued, “We asked them about their positions, because there’s no background for this sport in China, and we also asked what they thought about expansion of the game internationally, and would they ever help us come to China and spread the sport, and they were very gracious, both had a lot to say. Good guys.”

Hsaio’s job goes beyond getting the games on the air, and extends to recreating the entire American football culture in cities that are thousands of miles away. “We can’t control when the games are played, and because of the twelve-hour time difference, it’s always in the morning. So in order to kind of recreate that Monday Night Football go-out-to-a-bar-and-hang-out-with-some-friends feeling, we have these viewing parties that we’ve created, and we drive people toward that so they can get a sense of how the game is enjoyed in the U.S.”

Berlin has a grudging admiration for the idea. “I don’t think I’d fly sixteen hours to watch a game in a sports bar,” he said, “but for the people who are already there, more power to ’em.”

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