Touchdown in Asia: football’s growth in an unexpected place
The hint is in the name – American Football. It is a sport deeply rooted in American culture and for decades its popularity has been predominantly confined to the United States, parts of Canada and to a lesser extent, parts of Mexico.
Over the course of the past two decades, however, the people in charge of the NFL have been casting their eyes to overseas markets with hopes of international expansion high on their agendas. The United Kingdom was the first country to be aggressively targeted by the NFL and that was a rip-roaring success as 14 million British football fans will testify to.
Mainland Europe, Australia and Brazil were thought to be next on the agenda, identified by the league as countries and regions that would be more than open to football. Asia on the other hand, has traditionally been seen as a step too far not just by football but by other more popular global sports.
The tale of American Football in Asia is one that takes in NFL lines, jargon-induced language barriers and kick-off chaos in Kazakhstan. Read on to find out everything you need to know about football’s burgeoning expansion in Asia.
The Language Barrier
In 2007 when the Miami Dolphins faced off against the New York Giants at Wembley Stadium in London, the BBC published a series of articles and news pieces explaining not only the rules of football but the terminology of the game.
Whilst both the UK and USA share a common language, NFL commentators may as well have been speaking French to British viewers. How could the average Brit be expected to know what a nickel and dime package is or recognise a pooch punt?
If the language of football was hard to understand for people with a shared language, can you imagine the difficulties the game has faced in Asia? The majority of Asian languages are so vastly different to English that it has made it particularly difficult for the game to be understood by Asian audiences.
NFL terminology can be hard enough to understand for English-speaking audiences, never mind Asian ones!
What do you need to play soccer? A ball and a couple of jumpers for goalposts? What about cricket? A bat, a ball and a wall where you can paint on a wicket. Football, however, isn’t a plug-and-play sport, it’s a game that requires specialised equipment and a basic understanding of a complex set of rules.
To expand in Asia, football has needed not only to find an audience of players willing to learn and adapt to a new game, but has also required significant investment. Thankfully the NFL is a multi-billion dollar industry with the resources at its disposal to provide that investment.
Targeted investment from the league and from domestic football organisations have allowed the game to overcome the participation barriers that don’t beset other sports.
Open Minded Markets
Despite the NFL’s success in expanding into the British market, there is still a deep scepticism of football in the UK. Ask the average sports fan in the country what they think to America’s most popular sport and they will most likely reply sardonically.
In Asia however, in particular, in countries like Japan, there is a much more open attitude to American imports. Baseball, for example, has established itself in Asia successfully, as have other cultural products from the USA.
Japan and South Korea have been two countries that have been exceptionally welcoming of American Football. In Seoul and Tokyo for example, it’s not uncommon to walk into a bar on game day and find crowds of fans huddled around TV screens cheering on their favourite franchise.
Kazakhstan, a country unfairly stereotyped by Sasha Baron-Cohen, is a country where American Football finds itself aligned perfectly with the country’s culture. Like many Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan has a young population.
Many of those young people need an outlet, a way to express themselves and relieve some of their frustrations. Football provides the perfect outlet with many of the country’s amateur players citing the game’s ferocity as one of the main reasons that they play.
That’s not just a Kazakh phenomenon either. All over Asia, there are countries in which soccer, cricket and baseball simply don’t measure up, and countries in which players and spectators are looking for more aggression from their sports.
It is in these countries where football is finding its niche.
Kazakhstan, an unexpected hotbed of American Football!
Asia is the biggest market on the planet, home to the most populous country on the globe and is a potential treasure trove for the NFL. Despite language barriers and obstacles to participation, the league is performing unexpectedly well in many Asian countries.
Whilst increasing the number of football fans in the UK and Ireland may seem like a logical move for the NFL, the savvy thing to do would be to abandon that market and instead focus all their efforts on making football Asia’s favourite foreign sport.
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