Why the Super Bowl Has a Special Place in US-China Relations

The story of how the NFL Super Bowl first came to China - with a little help from Ronald Reagan

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2:48 AM HKT, Wed February 6, 2019 2 mins read

Rewind to 1986. The Chicago Bears destroy the New England Patriots 46-10 and the musical group Up with People perform their last halftime show. Two months later, the White House makes a phone call to 20-something Lyric Hale with special instructions from President Ronald Reagan.

CEO of a small marketing firm, Hale was working to secure airtime for Super Bowl XX on Chinese Central TV, the only station for approximately 450 million local television viewers. The Californian politician predicted, correctly, this would be a good platform to reach the Chinese people.

When the broadcast finally hit screens March 9, Hale found it “impossible to imagine how excited people were.” OZY writes:

“The usually bustling streets of Beijing were deserted, and the only exceptions were the crowds of a few hundred that gathered to watch the game on a tiny screen in front of department stores, blocking entire roads, says David Hughes, a former U.S. Department of Commerce official who worked in China at the time.”

The first time American football was broadcasted in China was also the first time a foreign leader had directly addressed its billion-strong public. While Reagan had paid a visit east two years earlier — becoming the second US president to travel to China after Nixon — his remarks in 1986 had little to do with trade or Taiwan.


Instead, the program opened with greetings from the US Ambassador to China Winston Lord, who read a letter from Reagan (okay, so maybe the address wasn’t that direct), stating that the game was “extremely popular” in the States and that it “developed teamwork and friendly competition.” The former Hollywood star also explained why football, or “olive ball” as Hale called it, generated so much hype: “Although the sport is a profit-making business — each team is privately owned — the people of each city take pride in their local teams.”

Extra care was taken to ease viewers into the world of touchdowns and tackles. New vocabulary was created. Footage was edited down to an hour. And what should have been expert banter was turned into a somewhat dry how-to guide, accompanied by diagrams of important plays. A 1986 article from The Christian Science Monitor reports:

“‘The object is to pull down as many of the opposite team’s men as possible,’ the Chinese announcer said early on. When one incomplete pass bounced into the end zone, the announcer lamented, ‘Oh, that’s too bad.'”

Though many Chinese viewers interviewed at the time admitted they didn’t understand the game, that didn’t stop them from enjoying it. In fact, 300 million people tuned in, CCTV reported. That’s a pretty impressive number, considering the population of the US that year was just over 240 million people.


Of course, did 300 million people really watch the game?

“I’d be astonished if that many actually watched it,” Stefan Szymanski, co-director of the Michigan Center for Sport Management at the University of Michigan, told OZY before adding, “unless it was completely State-backed.”

But apparently, it was. According to OZY, “almost every newspaper in China published thorough explanations of America’s most popular sport. Even People’s Daily, the de facto national paper, carried one written by David Hughes on the front page.”

Regardless of the exact view count, football’s presence in China has only grown since the 1980s. Kantar-CSM China research shows that there are more than 19 million people interested in the NFL in China — a fanbase that has grown 1087% in the past five years. The American Football League of China was founded in 2013, and in 2018 their regular season had twenty teams compete. The NFL even tapped Kris Wu to perform at the Super Bowl last year.


Of course, the NBA has shown that while China can bring great riches, making a concerted push for market share in the country can also be fraught with challenges. Nevertheless, the NFL doesn’t look like it’ll be backing away from China any time soon.

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