By Peter Rutherford
HONG KONG (Reuters) - The NFL is enjoying rapid growth in China but it will not stage a game there until the fan base reaches a tipping point to avoid damaging its "brand equity", the head of the league's Chinese operation told Reuters.
Rated by Forbes as the world's richest professional sports league, with over $9 billion in annual revenues, the NFL overshadows rivals such as the NBA and Major League Baseball on home soil, but it is playing catch-up in China.
NFL China Managing Director Richard Young conceded the league had dropped the ball by getting there late, but he is comfortable with the growth in popularity of American football across China's major cities.
"We're not going down the same old route the way some people still do, they look at 1.38 billion people and say, 'If we could just get 5 percent'," Young told Reuters by telephone on Thursday. "When people follow that strategy it's all gone.
"A lot of people try to make very homogenous maxims about China all the time, but we don't believe there's a cultural reason as to why American football is more popular in the United States than it is overseas.
"It's just that we haven't been very active, have not been proactive, in developing it overseas and particularly in China.
"What would we do differently? Start earlier, that's the number one thing."
While Major League Baseball, the NBA, as well as European soccer teams, have staged games in China, Young said there were no plans for the NFL to follow suit anytime soon.
The NFL had to cancel an exhibition game between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks in 2007 as China simply was not ready for the sport and the league's international expansion was instead routed through London.
The logistical difficulties in bringing the NFL roadshow to China and delivering a product that would do the league justice was also something that had been underestimated.
"Until our fan base is at a level where it can truly support itself, and there is additional demand for more, I'm not supportive of holding a game here," said the Shanghai-based Young.
"Wembley sells out in three hours - that's the NFL. Having empty seats and saying, 'Oh we still have tickets left' - that's not the NFL.
"We're not going after everyone, we're going after the rural areas, we're concentrating on 19 major cities, we know we have a tipping point of 38 million.
"We're very much more Louis Vuitton than the Gap. We're focusing on a smaller group of people and until that base is large enough we don't want to damage our brand equity."
Unlike the NBA, which has been able to flourish in China due to the country's long-established basketball structure, the NFL is starting from scratch.
Growing the game at grassroots level will mean educating people about a highly complex sport, providing expensive equipment and finding the space to play. The NFL is also hindered by the fact American football is not an Olympic sport.
"In developing countries, not unique to China, they see sports primarily through ethnic and national pride," he added.
"Curling became hugely popular here because they beat the Canadians ... in the Winter Olympics and all of a sudden they start watching curling."
The Chinese women's team became the first from Asia to win an Olympic curling medal at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, taking bronze.
Despite the challenges, NFL figures show encouraging growth, particularly in social media and online streaming.
More than 1 million people in China watched the Super Bowl online last season, while cumulative television viewership jumped from 48 million to 80 million across China. Nike will begin selling NFL apparel in its stores on November 16.
"Most people in China don't know what a quarterback does, but our research shows they recognize the NFL shield and the NFL brand quite well, actually a lot better than most people think and a lot higher than many leagues who are also in China.
"They know that it is quality and they know that it has stature in the United States, which carries a lot of weight here, so we don't want to do anything just to tick a box.
"Holding a game in China just to say that we did it is not part of our plans."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)