• Michael Lin

NFL's Tencent Model Gives China Fans the Perfect Offering

It’s been a long time coming.


Back in the early 90s, save for a handful of fans, you’d be hard-pressed to find any live televised National Football League (NFL) games in China. Bowling, snooker, and the occasional soccer game were far more prevalent even on “cable” channels such as ESPN Asia or Star Sports, let alone local television. It was a difficult period for US sports leagues, both breaking into the Chinese market and their ability to educate fans about their respective sports was proving largely unsuccessful.


Fast forward a decade, the NBA made waves with Yao Ming’s draft in 2002, and then the NFL finally landed its first national TV broadcast featuring Super Bowl XXXVIII (38) in 2004 on the highly sought-after CCTV5 channel. This was a landmark day for the league, its fanbase in China, and definitely myself, having personally never missed a Super Bowl since 1994. Despite a one-hour delay, this was for many Chinese fans their first experience watching the NFL.

As interest in the game slowly took off, the NFL continued to make progress in bringing the game closer to Chinese fans. For starters, continuing to broadcast the Super Bowl every year since ‘04, launching an official Sina Weibo account in 2010, and supporting all 32 teams with an official presence starting in 2016. The league began to exponentially grow in fandom, culminating in this year’s first-ever NFL subscription with Tencent - a moment any fan in the 90s could only dream of.


As other leagues continue to grapple with political controversies and media rights squabbles, the NFL managed to produce and deliver an incredible product to its Chinese fans. This offering, a type of subscription service that caters to any NFL fan, has a striking list of benefits and a full range of content available to subscribers.


At just RMB 284 ($40), and beyond its unprecedented access to watch every game on-demand, the NFL offers access into a deep library of original content including Hard Knocks, as well as free access to watch NFL Red Zone, usually an additional paid product in western markets. Games are also available with English commentary, which even for Chinese fans is highly preferable and important, as professional game knowledge is highly valued and acts as a language education by-product which parents will like.


Besides games, the NFL has placed a significant emphasis on making fans feel part of the community with a wide range of benefits, something I discovered immediately after I subscribed. I was instantly connected with the NFL's latest WeChat service account creating a direct bridge with the league. The personal touch of also linking me with fans of the same team was a welcome add-on and impressed me to know how many of my fellow 49er fans are in China.


As I sifted through the back-end of the VIP package, there were additional areas that drove me to their ecommerce store for offers & discounts, an events & experiences section, and more opportunities to participate in future tailored campaigns.

One stand-out feature was the Football Glossary of Terms. As part of any growing league in an international market, providing inclusiveness for any sports fan is important and shows the emphasis that the NFL has for its grassroots community and, weirdly enough, its core community as well.


Launching the glossary on its first subscription product was deliberate to allow any sports fans to understand sporting terms of the NFL and reach the millions of subscribers on Tencent sports. At the same time, it unifies and standardizes the terms in Chinese for the football community and allows the league to step in as the authority for American Football lexicon in China.


As other leagues continue to progress in China, know that Generation-Z is coming fast, a group of almost 300 million strong who breathe digital. Staying relevant in the ever-changing digital landscape, understanding where your fan base is consuming content and creating a connection with the next generation will be key as rights holders continue to tap into new audiences.


For most organisations, established or hardcore fans will continue to organically bolster your favorite leagues, clubs, and players; the question is - how closely are you connected with this top 5% of fans?


The NFL has done a fantastic job evolving with its community, listening to them, and staying relevant on the newest digital platforms.


The wait is finally over.


For the NFL, on to the next chapter.

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