Amid all the spectacle and pomp of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the attention of sports fans in the United States was diverted on Monday to an event taking place closer to home.
This year’s Super Bowl, a tight contest that saw the Los Angeles Rams narrowly eke out a victory over the long-suffering Cincinnati Bengals, may have garnered the largest television audience in the league’s history. This would represent no small feat for what has become an annual cultural phenomenon in the US.
Excitement for the Super Bowl was harder to find overseas.
Despite substantial efforts by the National Football League (NFL) at globalizing interest in American football, which have focused primarily on the European market, sports fans in China remain largely indifferent. One study has claimed that the number of people in the country interested in the NFL totals 19 million – just a sliver of the overall population of 1.4 billion. This stands in stark contrast to the NBA, which has found enormous success with China’s vast basketball fanbase.
In 2017, the NFL signed a deal with Shenzhen-based technology giant Tencent, transferring exclusive broadcasting rights to the company for delivering content to Chinese mainland audiences. Since then, NFL games have been available to stream for free on Tencent’s line of ubiquitous mobile platforms.
In a bid to win over viewers, the 2022 Super Bowl saw Tencent collaborate with a well-known team of domestic commentators, including Lou Yichen (娄一晨 Lóu Yīchén), renowned in China for his expert analysis of international soccer matches.
During the Super Bowl, which began at 7:30 on Monday morning in China, most of the oxygen in domestic social media was consumed by live updates on budding Olympic superstar skier Eileen Gu, who has taken the Chinese public by storm in recent weeks. Coverage of Gu, who is currently in Beijing to compete in the ongoing Winter Games, largely overshadowed discussion of the Super Bowl.
The majority of interest in the Super Bowl that did appear in the country was focused not on the game itself, but on the halftime show and range of A-list celebrities in attendance. Tencent commentator Lou Yichen referred to the event to “America’s Spring Festival Gala” (美国春晚 Měiguó Chūnwǎn) in a post on popular Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. The Gala, broadcast annually by state television network CCTV, is a multi-hour entertainment sensation in China, sometimes considered to be the world’s most-watched television program.
In 2018, the NFL attempted to use this perception of the Super Bowl as an entertainment and pop culture-oriented event to its advantage, naming the now-disgraced Chinese pop star Kris Wu (吴亦凡 Wú Yìfán) as its official Super Bowl LII ambassador for China – a position that included an appearance in the popular halftime show.
Among the most commonly shared images on Chinese social media during Monday’s Super Bowl was the celebration of NBA icon Lebron James in the stands, following a touchdown by Los Angeles. James became the league’s new all-time leading scorer over the weekend, an accomplishment that earned him significant praise from his significant Chinese fanbase.
While the NBA’s official Weibo account has a total of 42.8 million followers, the NFL sits at a meager 1.8 million. This is despite plans by the NFL in recent years to expand its media operations in China’s expansive digital universe, with all 32 teams having also registered official accounts on various social media platforms.