China loves football, but the sport's growth has a simple problem

  • The National Football League is growing in popularity in China.
  • NFL China's managing director told CNBC that regular season games now attract 900,000 Chinese fans on average.
  • But a lack of "inventory" is stifling the ability of the league to host a game in the country.
Tom Brady #12 and Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots on February 4, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 
Elsa | Getty Images
Tom Brady #12 and Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots on February 4, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Attempts by the NFL to win more fans in China is being held back by one major problem — a lack of games.

Richard Young, the managing director of NFL China, told CNBC Wednesday that with each U.S. franchise only holding an inventory of eight regular season home games it would be difficult to give any away to an overseas audience.

"I think when you can fly between New York and Shanghai in an hour and a half, then we can do that. Until that time, it's logistically very difficult," he told CNBC's Arjun Kharpal at the East West Tech conference in the Nansha district of Guangzhou, China.

Young added that unlike other sports, pre-season NFL games would not be attractive.

"Because of the physicality in our game, it makes exhibition games less compelling."

The NFL has been a major American sport since the 1920s but has upped efforts in recent years to gain an audience abroad. Regular season games at Wembley Stadium in London have proved popular, leading to increased speculation that China will be next.

Young said he expected that will happen at some point but confirmed to CNBC that the 2019 fixture list would not include a trip to China.

The NFL is now averaging 900,000 Chinese viewers for each regular season game, according to Young. More evidence of growth can be found within China itself. As recently as 2009 there was not a single American Football adult team in China, but the NFL has estimated there is now more than 100 teams playing regularly.

Young said the sport's growth is being led by a cult of fans who see themselves as different from the more established products from the U.S such as basketball (NBA) and wrestling (WWE).

He added that while the NFL was a sport often watched by families and friends in the U.S., the simple fact of time zones was another challenge.

"1 p.m. games are 1 a.m., 4 p.m. games are 4 a.m., so, it's really Sunday, Monday, and Thursday night games that's driving our product here," Young said.

Young said that meant fans wanted a more mobile and on-demand experience in China, often consuming games while traveling or on the way to work.

"Where it is all beers and guacamole and very communal viewing in the U.S., it is an individual experience in China."