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How the NFL uses Singles Day to boost sales in China

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Getty Images
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The NFL has three big events a year to grab the Chinese consumer: The Super Bowl, season kickoff and Nov. 11 — Singles Day.

From New England Patriots t-shirts to the chance to win an item autographed by Peyton Manning, the NFL has spent Friday promoting popular items to a prospering fanbase on the other side of the globe that's glued to shopping site Alibaba. Sales on football team hoodies, scarves and caps are also running, with free shipping on everything.

This is how North America's most-watched sport is participating in the world's biggest shopping day.

"I don't think I'm stretching it by saying the fans of the NFL in China are some of the most diehard fans in the world," said Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, in an e-mail.

According to Young, the number of people interested in the NFL in China has surged over 1,000 percent in the past five years to 19 million today. Despite the time difference (13 hours between New York and Beijing), over 1.5 million viewers are tuning in every week to stream games online, an increase of 30 percent over last year.

In February, over 15 million people in China watched the Super Bowl live, Young said, even though it started at 7:30 a.m. local time during Chinese New Year.

The NFL is just one of the many U.S. brands using Singles Day as an opportunity to expand into the world's second-largest economy. As of mid-morning on Friday in China, 30 percent of merchandise sold was from international businesses, with Apple and Gap selling some of the most popular items in their categories, according to data from Alibaba.

Total sales on Singles Day is expected to eclipse $20 billion, according to Fung Business Intelligence, a 40 percent increase from last year and about five times the size of Cyber Monday.

The NFL created nflchinashop.com over four years ago and teamed up with Alibaba's Tmall, "as they were the largest player in the e-commerce space and the traffic was already there," Young said.

The league utilizes its web presence to get people interested in the teams and players and build the type of affinity that will make consumers want to purchase merchandise and, more importantly, watch games.

Football of the American variety is still in its infancy in China. In a country of over 1.35 billion people, only 6,500 of them are currently playing in an organized program, according to Young. More than 300 million people, meanwhile, are playing Basketball, according to estimates from NBA China.

Sam Forencich | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

That's not surprising considering that numerous Chinese natives have made it to the NBA, most notably Yao Ming, the retired all-star center for the Houston Rockets. Last month, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced NBA Academies, an elite program with training centers around the world. The first three will open in China.

But football is growing. The China Arena Football League, an indoor league styled after the Arena Football League in the U.S., just completed its first season. And the younger generation is showing enthusiasm.

"China is seeing a real boom in youth playing American football," Young said.

Clarification: This article has been updated to say that the Peyton Manning autographed item is the prize of a promotional giveaway.