In addition to the day-to-day management of the NFL's business in China and developing a long-term market strategy, Stokes oversees media, consumer and fan development programs, and plans for the possible China Bowl. The newly-married Stokes took some time out of his busy, busy schedule to talk to brandchannel about turning China into fans of football. The right kind of football.
How did you get involved in the NFL’s China expansion?
I’ve worked on the NFL’s international business throughout my eight years with the League, managing various programs in our key international markets, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, and the UK. I have been involved in our China initiatives since they began in 2004, and in March of 2007 I took on an exciting six-month project here in Beijing, which then evolved into my current role. It’s a vibrant city and simultaneously a fascinating and frustrating place to build a business. But I’m certain the NFL can carve a niche in this massive market.
Football, unlike, say, basketball or soccer, requires a great deal of (often expensive) equipment. Is there any way a developing nation can really afford to cultivate football at youth levels?
We have had success establishing flag football leagues in Chinese middle schools and will expand that effort to universities in Beijing and Shanghai this year. Flag is a basic version of our sport and a fun way for people to learn the fundamentals of American football. While prioritizing speed and skill over size and strength, flag football also emphasizes strategy and teamwork, both of which resonate well with Chinese students. In other sports you can beat someone one-on-one; but in football if your receiver runs the wrong route, even a perfect spiral won’t get caught.
However, from a strategic standpoint, it’s important to note that we are not trying to place a football in the hands of every Chinese student. We believe that through various marketing platforms, live events and media exposure, we can create a sizeable fan base. Here in China, I cite myself as an example of someone who never played organized football but I’ve always been a big NFL fan. As a kid I lived in London for five years and football wasn’t an option, so I played other sports instead. By the time we moved back to the US, I decided to continue playing those sports but my Dad and I still watched football on Sunday afternoons.
Besides exhibition games, where does one start on such a large brand expansion in a nation completely foreign to the sport?
Our primary focus is on media exposure so we can generate greater awareness and understanding of our great sport. We are working with national (CCTV) and regional (e.g. SMG) broadcasters to increase the number of game broadcasts while also localizing our programming (e.g. Mandarin commentators). It is also imperative that we continue to draw new fans with locally produced “magazine shows” like we do with the G-Sports channel in Shanghai. These shows feature highlight clips but also focus on the unique elements of the NFL experience, such as tailgating and cheerleading.
We have also utilized mobile media, by promoting the NFL via flat screen TV’s in Shanghai subway cars. Millions of commuters each day can watch our highlights and then SMS (Short Message Service) answers to trivia questions, with weekly winners awarded NFL prizes.
Our www.NFLChina.com site is stronger then ever, but we need to include more video content and gaming elements. In the off-season, we will develop local portal partnerships that will increase usage and build our fan database. We plan to service the world’s second largest broadband market (49M users) by streaming one live game per week in Mandarin during the 2008 season. Post Olympics, there is going to be massive demand for quality content like NFL programming and we will be poised to exploit the opportunity across all platforms.
Why is it that so many media agencies report on the NFL’s expansion plans as “world domination” and so forth when, in fact, American style NFL football is one of the most underdog sports leagues in the world in terms of popularity?
By any measure, the NFL is America’s most popular sport, so I think we tend to generate some of those headlines when expanding our market. And while we do face significant hurdles in international expansion, I have no doubt we will continue to grow our expanding international fan base. In China we may never be as popular as soccer or table tennis but by highlighting the action, strategy, and world–class athleticism unique to the NFL, we will carve a niche within our target demographic (i.e. 16 to 30 year old urban males).
What’s the most popular NFL team in China right now and why?
I believe the New England Patriots are the most popular team in China right now. They have directly invested resources in the market by bringing [Patriot player] Ben Watson here in June and stationing a staff member here to build their brand. We have partnered with them on several initiatives, most recently our “NFL Evenings” which are fan viewing parties we have hosted in Beijing and Shanghai throughout the playoffs. These events re-create the American “sports bar” in local venues where we show a taped Mandarin-language broadcast of a playoff game.
The Mandarin commentary is supplemented by two live MC’s who are educating the fans about the big plays and the strategic component behind [Super Bowl XLII Champions NY Giant player] Plaxico’s post-route or [Patriot player] Brady’s touchdown pass. We even flew over four of the Patriots’ cheerleaders this month to perform and sign autographs. They were great “ambassadors” for American football. And to attract the curious observer, there are interactive games, trivia contests, prizing, and food/drink specials.
Have any tips for brand ambassadors finding themselves in China with seemingly impossible tasks, like building the NFL?
I don’t agree with the characterization of building the NFL here in China as an “impossible task,” but we do have to take a long-term view, as does any new product entering this complex market. I believe “building relationships” remains paramount. Some believe “guanxi” is overrated but if you are able to develop the right personal relationships, you can gain advantages. This is a time-consuming process and your patience will be tested as you attend (and host) dinners where substantive business issues are disregarded. However, if you demonstrate genuine interest, earn respect and develop trust, your business will benefit.
There is also a Michael Stokes who is a Department of Defense analyst of China’s space program. Who do you think has the harder job?
Undoubtedly, the other Michael’s job is more difficult. On a good day, I like to think the NFL is contributing to cultural exchange between the US and China by sharing our most exciting sports entertainment experience. Whereas, analysts at the Department of Defense are grappling with geopolitical issues I couldn’t comprehend.