NFL vs. NBA: The battle for world supremacy

Story highlights

NFL game at home of English rugby

UK kickoff times boost Chinese audience

Mexico to host first NFL Monday night game staged outside of US

CNN  — 

As the NFL continues its patient quest to conquer the globe, the sport is set to play at its “spiritual home” for the first time this weekend.

On Sunday, Twickenham, the long-standing home of England’s national rugby team, hosts an enticing clash between the New York Giants and the LA Rams.

“Our sport was basically born from rugby, so it’s nice to be going back to our spiritual home in many ways,” NFL UK’s managing director Alistair Kirkwood says.

It will be the first NFL contest in the UK away from Wembley; the London soccer stadium has staged all the matches since the International Series began in 2007, attracting over a million fans in the process.

As the NFL works on its aim of a UK-based franchise within five or six years, which would require the ability to stage eight matches in no more than 17 weeks, the sport needs to try out new arenas.

West London-based Twickenham is the first, with soccer team Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground in north London next in line.

It may be home to the English Premier League high-flier, but White Hart Lane stadium is being rebuilt with the American version of football in mind – Spurs agreed a 10-year deal to stage a minimum of two NFL games a season from 2018.

To cater for gridiron’s sizable squads, Twickenham has had to convert a traditional hospitality bar into a locker-room, but far more notable is the kickoff time – 1430 local (1330 GMT/0930 ET.)

Gateway to China

The lunchtime start is a boon to American viewers, with previous games having topped the breakfast TV ratings, but there is an even more important consideration – China, the biggest overseas market of them all.

Unfortunately for those NFL administrators trying to crack the lucrative Chinese market, there’s no avoiding the fact that regular kickoff times in the United States – such as 1300 and 1600 on a Sunday – equate to 0100 and 0400 on a Monday morning in Beijing.

“There isn’t a single game that is convenient for Chinese fans – aside from the UK one,” says Mark Waller, the NFL’s head of international development.

“We first played in the UK at 6 pm but once we started, we realized that if we moved the kickoff earlier, it would be better for the British fans and for China.”

Kirkwood adds: “I don’t think China was the reason for moving the kickoff, but it’s definitely an additional benefit.”

Deservedly so, one might argue, since the NFL has got a break after choosing to make London a loss leader. The costs of transporting and lodging 125-strong traveling parties, among other expenses, far outweigh the gate receipts from regularly sold-out games.

“It’s not an attempt to make a profit, it’s an investment to build a business,” Kirkwood explains of the London venture.

Having sent recently-retired NFL great Peyton Manning on a promotional visit to China in September, the NFL is firmly targeting a country which started its own American football league (albeit a smaller scale version played indoors) earlier this month.

Already attracting a TV audience of 500,000-700,000 watching live in the middle of the night, the NFL has also started restreaming games with Chinese commentary during daylight hours in Asia.

The ultimate aim would be to stage a regular-season game in China. This has so far proved too difficult, however, because of the long flight between the two countries and the problems posed by different time zones.

Numbers game

Basketball’s premier competition is also making progress in cracking the planet’s most populous nation.

As far back as 2004, the NBA became the first American professional sports league to stage a contest in China as the Houston Rockets – featuring Chinese star Yao Ming – beat Sacramento Kings in a preseason game in Shanghai.

The NBA, which first opened an office in Hong Kong back in 1992, had done its math.

“There are 300 million people that play basketball in China,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum told CNN. “We have over 100 million social media followers in China.”

For this month’s preseason game between the Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans in Shanghai, part of the NBA’s gospel-spreading Global Games, Tatum said “close to 50 million” Chinese tuned in.

“The passions of the fans here for the game and for the NBA is at an all-time high,” he added, via telephone, during a trip to China this month.

A successful visit too, with the NBA announcing a new deal with Chinese tech giant Tencent that allows local basketball fans to access every game online during a season.

Over 760 million fans in China watched the NBA during the 2015-16 season, but the new deal should boost this figure.

However, like the NFL administrators, those who run the NBA can’t find a way of staging regular-season matches in China because of the logistical challenges presented by time – until, quips Tatum, “they come up with faster airplanes!”

Mexican mission

Instead, the NBA is playing regular-season games outside of the US in two overseas venues this season: London, where it has being playing every year since 2011, and Mexico City.

Those two cities are also where the NFL is hosting its only overseas games. It’s the first time this has happened, but is this mere coincidence or a simple reflection of shared strategic goals?

“The answer is probably yes to both,” Kirkwood says.

“We are competing in the same broad space,” Waller agrees. “We do a lot of work looking at what other people do.”

Tatum, though, leans far more towards coincidence.

“It’s a big world out there,” he says. “Our focus is on growing the game and our game is played all over the world.”

The NBA first staged a regular-season game in 1997 and although there were pre-season games in-between, it wasn’t until 2014 that a league game returned, with recent market research confirming burgeoning interest among the Hispanic community.

Following the two games this January, the NBA will have staged 24 games in Mexico.

“We have a huge Mexican and Latin American following in the US but also in Mexico,” Tatum says. “The growth in fan base in Mexico City leads us to want to bring more games, content and activation to the marketplace.”

On its third year back, the NBA will stage two regular-season games there for the first time, in January. The Phoenix Suns is technically hosting both, against Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs.

The NFL is also achieving a first this year in Mexico – a country where in 2005 it attracted over 100,000 fans for its first regular-season game outside the US, between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers.

In November, Mexico City will host the first Monday night game ever played outside of the States.

“This will be huge for us – the start of something really big,” Kirkwood says. “It will open up the Latin American and Hispanic market in a similar way to how the UK games are opening up China.”

Other markets

Despite the convergence, the targets for both the NFL and NBA begin to separate as they eye further global expansion.

With fewer games (16 to 82) and bigger squads (53 to 15,) the NFL has to arguably be more selective and is focusing on Germany – which has an “incredible fan base,” says Waller – and Canada.

However, Australia, Brazil and Japan are also being mentioned as future destinations for high-profile matches.

Meanwhile, the NBA is looking more at preseason games given the intensity of its seasonal schedule.

The league is attracting serious interest from Africa, India, the Middle East and Australia – all of which want to stage games in preseason, a period when clubs have the time to properly interact with fans and sponsors.

It’s incredible to think the NBA has been doing this since a 1990 match between the Suns and Utah Jazz in Tokyo, Japan, marked the first time an American major league had played a regular-season game outside its home region (even if they’ve been playing international games since 1978).

“The beauty of our game is it’s truly global,” Tatum says. “It’s played all over the world. We have fans all over the world. Our games are in 215 countries and territories, and in 49 different languages.

“Last season, we had over a billion fans watching NBA games and programming throughout the season. We had more than 1.2 billion followers on social media, which is one of the largest social media communities in the world.”

The holy grail?

Meanwhile, the NFL also wants to grow the game – with a stated aim of increasing revenue to $25 billion per season by 2027.

This is why the overseas markets are so important, especially since the richest sport in the United States is close to saturation point in its own market.

“I’ll probably regret saying this, but I don’t focus on the $25 billion,” Waller says. “I focus on the fact that if you satisfy your fans and partners – whether in media, stadiums, sponsors – then you will grow and the revenues will come.

“To me, the $25 billion is not the holy grail. The holy grail is being the third most popular sport in the UK and Germany, the fifth in China, second in Mexico and third in Canada.”

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Twickenham is another step on the road to this aim, but to achieve it the NFL must prove as popular outside the US as in it – and overcome the NBA too.

Game on.

Makes clear in paragraph 37 there were pre-season games in Mexico.