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INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL STOKES (Pt. 4)
NFL REPRESENTATIVE TO CHINA
Learn of Their Development of the Markets in China
Past, Present and in the Future

 

NFL'S CHIEF REPRESENTATAIVE
TO CHINA - MICHAEL STOKES

Mr. Stokes has worked on the NFL's international business in key markets such as Canada, Mexico, Japan and the U.K. before he became involved with the China initiataives in 2004. Michael's many responsibilities (that involved into his present role in March 2007) includes the day-to-day management of the NFL's business in China, developing a long-term market strategy, overseeing media/consumer/fan development programs while handling the chat rooms during the live game telecast with Zhang Nan. The below-listed questions provides a brief glimpse in getting a better understanding of his vision and passion.


Born in Beijing, he attended the Beijing Sports University where he majored in Physical Education, with a specialization in basketball. During his senior year – only five years ago! – he was introduced to American football via the NFL’s youth flag football program. That program, which has had success in expanding the league’s appeal inJapan, is designed to introduce middle-school and college-aged students to football and NFL fan-dom. Zhang, after graduation, joined a sports marketing firm that worked with the NFL on promoting the program, and today he works for another sports marketing firm – Key Solutions – where he continues to work on NFL promotions, including the flag football program
American football is a complicated game with rules that sometime
bewilder even its most devoted fans. As a result, many of those fans –
me, included – tend to believe that you really need to grow up
with the game to love it. But clearly, that’s not the case with you.
So how did you come to learn the game, and enjoy it?
Five years ago, there weren’t any real football teachers or instructors or coaches in China. Working with the NFL Flag Football program, what we did initially was go to the language universities, and seek out foreign students and American students teaching in China. We really depended on their expertise. They would act as the head coaches, and the Chinese would be assistant coaches. That helped us to learn as we expanded the Flag Football program, and that’s how I began to appreciate it. You couldn’t see it on TV, but it was new and exciting.

What did you see as the biggest challenge?

For me, the biggest challenge is that there isn’t a lot of Chinese background information on these games. So doing the background research, translating the language into something that the Chinese understand, those are the challenges. You can’t translate John Madden word for word and expect a Chinese audience to understand it. You know, it’s not like in the US where a person can go and find all of these channels telling you what’s happening in the NFL. I have to seek out resources, ESPN, say, to put these stories together to help the Chinese audience understand what’s happened historically, and this week. Another big challenge is finding a balance between talking simply to beginning NFL fans, and talking too much about certain players, teams, and strategies for more advanced fans. If I make it too simple, then the actual fans find the broadcast boring. If I make it more advanced, we lose new fans.
So what is it about the NFL that attracts Chinese fans?
Our target demographic is 18 -30 year olds. In my opinion what attracts our demo is that the NFL is very unique to Chinese eyes. The teamwork aspect, in particular, the fact that all 11 people are working toward one common goal is attractive. Also, the game is very physical, and in that way it’s very different from anything that a Chinese person has seen or done in the sports arena.
From the perspective of a broadcaster and sports marketer,
what aspects of American football most appeal to Chinese fans?
Right now, the development is still in the early stages. But for the new Chinese fans, the contact at the line of scrimmage, the fact that there’s tackling, the physical contact, makes people look twice. Also, the size of the players – that gets people to look twice. All of those of factors are unique and new to China. The knowledge level just isn’t where it is in the States. So there’s less focus on strategy. Instead, two lines of men crashing into each other, that gets attention.
So the “warrior” aspect of the game is a big part of the appeal.
Yeah, in China there isn’t anybody like these NFL athletes
US ASIANS: Given the emphasis on teamwork, tactics, skills, speed, quickness and dexterity – could there be a time that the Chinese/Asian and European influences in football ushered in a new era of play, similar to what the Euro players brought to the NBA (especially with the emphasis on flag football leagues in China)?
MICHAEL STOKES: That's an interesting thought - and while it may be some time off, I think you may be right. We are always working hard to educate people about football with everything we do in China, and one of the key points is that you don't need to be 2 meters tall or weigh 150 kgs to be a star in the NFL. Look at Wes Welker or Mauarice Jones-Drew, their primary skills are speed, agility, on-field awareness and great hands. Those attributes have nothing to do with size or body type, but both players are dominant at their respective position (WR/Wide Receiver and RB/Running Back).
Note: The NFL has seen the little big men (under 6’) as league leaders in key areas such as touchdowns (Maurice Jones-Drew), yards rushing (Chris Johnson), receptions (Steve Smith) and sacks (Elvis Dumervil). One of the candidates for MVP is the New Orleans Saints' Drew Rees (Editor's Update: he has taken his team to the Super Bowl). Quickness and the proliferation of spread offenses are factors in allowing players such as the 5-foot-6 Darren Sproles in San Diego to 5-8 Ray Rice in Baltimore to the175-pound DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia (in addition to the players mentioned above) to be successful in the NFL.

US ASIANS: Considering your background in London and the United States, without actually playing organized football, what was the turning point of time that cultivated a great passion for football over other sports?
MICHAEL STOKES: I played other sports while living in London and by the time we moved back to the U.S., it made no sense to switch. However, my father played in college so we always watched it together and I've been a lifelong fan. I also cite myself as an example of what our research proves, you don't need to play football to love the NFL.

US ASIANS: With your belief that "building relationships" (“guanxi”) remains paramount, what are your upcoming strategic partnerships have a very high priority in 2010?
MICHAEL STOKES: Just to clarify, I believe that building mutually beneficial relationships are paramount. It is not enough just to know someone, who knows someone in China. There has to be a viable business proposition at the core of the conversation.

US ASIANS: Thank you for your helpful comments. Are there any particular type of strategic partnerships that NFL China is currently seeking and/or have been approached that gives many indications of being mutually beneficial to all parties MICHAEL STOKES: One of our key partnerships is with Sina.com.cn. As mentioned, they are China's most popular sports site with a massive audience, thereby allowing us to attract causal fans to our sport. More importantly, they allow us to control the MNF/Monday Night Football broadcasts to the extent that we hire and train the commentators and program the commercial breaks with our customized educational vignettes. This transforms the broadcast into a critical teaching tool whereby people learn about the strategy and tactics while experiencing the excitement of a live game with Chinese commentary. We are also able to communicate in real-time with our fans via chat rooms which allows our commentators to answer fan questions during pre-game and halftime. The games are also available for 72 hours on VOD - allowing people who are unable to watch MNF/Monday Night Football Live, to view the game at their convenience.

US ASIANS: Thank you for your time and attention, it is greatly appreciated.

 

 

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