Back in July, Sports Business Journal reported the NFL was planning on playing a regular season game in China in 2018, and it would feature the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams. A month later, SBJ reported the game could take place the Tuesday or Wednesday of opening week to factor in travel issues.
It turns out the travel issues remain a problem, and the chances of a 2018 game in China have dropped considerably. MMQB’s Albert Breer spoke with the NFL’s executive VP of International, Mark Waller, and he said that while they will continue to work on solutions, “there’s a low likelihood of it happening.” There are numerous issues in play, and Waller offered a few in the form of hypotheticals:
“When do the teams get back? How do you schedule them? Does it affect the teams coming back?” Waller said. “If we want to do this in China, it has to be a good time for Chinese fans, but also so that U.S. fans can watch. And we want to make sure we can keep growing it.”
A flight to Beijing is 13 hours from Los Angeles, and if it was the 49ers and Rams, they would be dealing with a 15-hour time difference. There are issues with the travel, but also with when to play the game. Baseball has had games in Japan, but when it’s a three-game series out of 162 for often more regionalized fan bases, as opposed to one game out of 16 for the NFL and its often national fan following of teams, it raises issues. Breer reported the league considered a few ideas:
One that had some steam behind it was playing at noon Beijing time on the Saturday of opening weekend. That would allow for: A) a 9 p.m. Pacific kickoff on Friday night (good if it’s, say, Rams-Niners); and B) the teams to get home on Saturday nigh. But the truth is, there is no perfect concept.
The NFL has expanded its viewing options in London, and has slowly expanded that. Breer said the NFL has about 500,000 fans consistently watching games in China, mostly online. That’s a good number, but for a country with 1.3 billion people, that’s a drop in the bucket. I think the NFL could figure out ways to sell out the game, but in terms of expanding into such a huge potential market, it’s a lengthy process.
I like the idea of the 49ers being pioneers of sorts, but I’m also perfectly happy seeing them not have to travel that far to play a game. Particularly a divisional game that could prove critical. Of course, that also assumes the 49ers are a competitive team in 2018, but that is a whole other issue!