East Tech West

NBA, NFL and WWE have exploded in China thanks to mobile, sports leaders say

Key Points
  • American football fans in China are watching tailored content on their mobiles while American fans get together for a "collective experience" during live matches, NFL China exec says.
  • WWE could bring future events to China with a growing fanbase willing to pay a premium.
  • Majority of NBA fans in China watch curated content on Tencent platforms.
NFL’s success in China is getting attention from all 32 teams: NFL China MD

Major American sports are rapidly growing loyal fan bases in China thanks to mobile and a culture of consuming sport as an "individual" compared to the "collective" live sports experience traditionally seen in the U.S, according to representatives from the NFL, the NBA and WWE.

Speaking at CNBC's East Tech West conference in the Nansha district of Guangzhou, China, Managing Director of NFL China Richard Young said that an "explosion" of digital platforms and localized strategies has helped bring the NFL to a new audience just as passionate about American football.

"A lot of people are surprised by how popular the NFL has become in China," Young told CNBC's Arjun Kharpal.

"Explosions of digital platforms has allowed the consumer to choose, which is where we feel comfortable. It allows people to have the freedom with how they want to watch (the NFL). In the U.S. it's about the live game. It has to be consumer led and has been driven by more privatized media. Thursday night football is Friday morning here (in China). Beers and guacamole are collective experiences in U.S., (whereas) it is an individual experience in China."

Mobile generation

The future of sports streaming in China

The NBA, the premier U.S professional basketball league, has long had a foothold in China. The likes of Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and Wang Zhizhi, the first ever Chinese professional basketball player to make a mark in the U.S., are just a handful of examples of China's basketball exports. Today, the NBA commands an average of 4 million people watching a match on China's state broadcaster CCTV while 30 million watch "NBA Prime Time," a weekly magazine show, according to NBA China Chief Executive Derek Chang.

"We did a deal with Weibo for highlights. We've been on multiple Tencent platforms such as WeChat. That 24-7 engagement with fans ... keeps it going. 70 percent of mobile viewing is on Tencent."

"The numbers are outstanding. How do we take that forward? From a physical standpoint of play zones, it's kind of an online-offline combination to be in front of as many of our fans as possible." Chang said.

Jay Li, General Manager of Greater China of WWE, Derek Chang, Chief Executive Officer of NBA China, Richard Young, Managing Director of NFL China and Arjun Kharpal of CNBC speak during Panel Discussion on Day 2 of CNBC East Tech West at LN Garden Hotel Nansha Guangzhou on November 28, 2018 in Nansha, Guangzhou, China.
Dave Zhong/Getty Images for CNBC International

"We have players come through China. We have 20 to 30 players coming through every summer. More of what you see is that people want more. They want to see players preparing for games or playing video games."

Popular wrestling brand WWE has also taken a "digital first" strategy to give Chinese fans more context behind the sport.

"The American audience knows the back story. But it's not the case here in China. We're learning how to localize content such as providing a backstory on John Cena and why he's loved or hated. We also brought Chinese wrestlers ringside," said Jay Li, WWE's general manager in Greater China.

He also added that mobile audiences in China were far more likely to pay for content.

"The whole business was built on paid television, pay per view. We decided to stream directly to the consumer and did that in China. We developed a core following in China ... super served with all the WWE content. There's a rising adoption of premium content (behind a paywall)."

Future trends

An increasingly young audience has become hardcore, and they're moving to exclusive clips on mobile. The challenge isn't just how to tell that story to a foreign online audience but in reaching new fans beyond social media and technology.

The NFL's influence has seen 100 adult American football teams in China, Young said.

"Seven years ago, there were none. Youth participation is on the rise, with 40,000 applying. Both on the ground and online there is a push to grow support."

"Moderate success in China is getting attention of the (U.S.) teams. We also do a lot with local players with a show telling their stories about why they enjoy American football and how it defines them. Because it is different."

WWE's general manager in China even hinted that there may be upcoming exclusive events in the country.

"I'm all for that (a China exclusive event). I'm hoping that with the growth of our fan base, someday very soon we'll be able to see a Chinese version of the (WWE) Super Show-Down."

WWE Live has been held in China for three years in a row, with this year's edition taking place in Shanghai.