ATLANTA (Reuters) - The National Football League will mark the end of era in 2019 when in celebrates its 100th season and could look to the future by playing a first game in China with commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday labeling the country a “priority market”.
Like every other North American sports league the NFL is looking to carve out a slice of the China sports pie, a marketplace with a potential 1.3 billion fans.
The National Basketball Association, after decades of nurturing, has seen China become its biggest foreign market while the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball have also established footholds having played preseason games there.
The NFL has been late to the party but now looks ready to make a push into the market.
During his annual ‘state of league address’ ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, Goodell said: “I hope some time in the next couple of months we are going to have some very exciting announcements.
“China is a priority market for the NFL,” he added. “We believe that our game has a great deal of potential to expand to grow and bring new fans into our game.
“We have had double-digit growth this past year in China in our fan base and people engaging with our game. So we are excited by it.”
The NFL has made several aborted attempts to get a “China Bowl” off the ground, with failed plans to stage an exhibition game in Beijing 2007 and 2009.
The NFL, however, has continued to lay the groundwork for a move into China.
Last December the league announced a digital partnership with China’s Youku, Alibaba Group’s video entertainment platform, to bring programming to Chinese fans.
The Patriots’ five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Tom Brady has also traveled to Beijing to wave the NFL flag, paying a promotional visit to the Great Wall in 2017, saying it is his dream to play in China before he retires.
With the Sports Business Journal reporting the NFL is targeting 2019 to play a game in China as part of its 100th anniversary celebrations, Brady might get that chance.
In Europe, meanwhile, the NFL is going from strength to strength.
The league has already announced four regular season games will take place in London this year, with two at Wembley Stadium and two visits to Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground.
Goodell said London had everything required to be considered for an NFL franchise — stadium, infrastructure and passionate supporters, but added that fans should not expect their own team anytime soon.
“I think the issue for us still is can, we do this competitively for the team that is based in London and the other 31 clubs,” said Goodell.
“That involves scheduling and other matters you don’t want to compromise and until we get comfortable with that I don’t think we will be NFL ready in London.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford