NFL Sees Strong China Growth as Joe Montana Rallies Asian Fans

Nov. 15 (Bloomberg) -- The National Football League is experiencing “strong growth” in China and may stage an exhibition game in the Asian nation as the fan base grows, according to the head of its Chinese operations.

The number of fans has doubled in the past three years to more than 9 million, including 3 million who have a team they watch regularly, Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, said in an interview in Shanghai yesterday.

An exhibition game in China “would be the first step, and it’s very possible if we’re growing the way we’re growing,” Young said. “Our fan base growth is on track.”

Interest in American football is growing through the development of flag-football teams at 36 universities, online streaming of games through as well as promotional visits by former players, he said.

Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, who visited Shanghai with Young yesterday, said American football would probably become more popular if there were more Chinese-American athletes like Jeremy Lin, who has galvanized interest in the National Basketball Association through his play with the Houston Rockets.

“If a Chinese player can come to the NFL, that would help the process move faster but I don’t think it’s a necessity,” Montana said in an interview from Shanghai. “Once they understand the game, they will love it like any other sport.”

China may follow the example of Britain, which has moved from one exhibition game a year to hosting two sold-out regular-season games, Young said. The New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos are among the teams that have played in London.

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