NFL, Tencent Aiming for China's Smartphone Screens

By Wayne Ma and Alyssa Abkowitz Features Dow Jones Newswires

Pro football may rule big-screen TVs in the U.S., but it's the small screens of smartphones where the National Football League hopes to make its play in China.

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The NFL and Tencent Holdings Ltd. announced a deal this week that will give the Chinese internet company exclusive rights to digitally stream games online for three years. Financial terms weren't disclosed.

Tencent plans to stream live games and other NFL content for free on both mobile and desktop platforms, including its flagship WeChat social-media app, which has more than 960 million monthly active users.

Expectations are that most of the viewing in China will be on mobile platforms, partly because of the time difference between the U.S. and China, said Richard Young, the head of the NFL's operations in China.

"Because our games came in on Monday, Tuesday and Friday mornings, people were often displaced from their TV sets," Mr. Young said. "Now, they are watching from home while getting ready for work, watching on their commute to work, putting it on pause, going to work and continuing to watch."

Under the agreement, Tencent will pay the NFL to stream all of its Thursday, Sunday and Monday Night Football games, as well as the Super Bowl and other selected games. Chinese viewers can listen to live Chinese commentators as well as read NFL coverage on Tencent's news platform.

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One of the NFL's biggest challenges has always been popularizing the game and its players in a way that mirrored the path taken by basketball, the most popular spectator sport in China.

Former Houston Rockets player Yao Ming helped promote the National Basketball Association here, where players such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have big followings.

For Lian Xu, becoming a Boston Celtics basketball fan was the gateway to becoming a New England Patriots football fan. Mr. Lian said one of his favorite football players is Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman.

"He always plays hard and runs great routes," the 27-year-old graduate student from Shanghai said.

Several analysts and industry insiders are bullish on football's prospects in China.

"The culture of the NFL, the fans, the tailgating and the drama that is delivered with the NFL is appealing," said Andrew Collins, chief executive of Mailman, a Shanghai-based sports- and digital-marketing agency. "It's not just sport, it's entertainment."

For Tencent, the deal is part of its overall strategy to keep its hundreds of millions of users engaged and available for advertisers. It also follows a template established in 2015, when Tencent paid at least $500 million to become the NBA's exclusive digital-streaming partner in China for five years.

For the NFL, the deal comes as the New York-based league faces headwinds in the U.S. Last season, the average audience for NFL games was 16.5 million, down 8% from the previous season, according to TV-ratings firm Nielsen. Analysts say oversaturation is an issue, along with viewing patterns shifting from TV to the internet.

Under the deal with Tencent, Chinese viewers will get to see more than 100 NFL games a year, including all its prime-time games, live or on-demand. In contrast, Amazon.com Inc.'s streaming deal with the NFL is for just 10 prime-time games this season.

The NFL began a major push into China around 2009. That year, it produced a 16-episode reality TV series -- about a Taiwanese pop band exploring football culture in the U.S. -- to raise awareness for the game among Chinese viewers.

The league also dipped its toes early into China's internet, signing a deal with social-media company Sina Corp. to digitally stream a single game. Eventually, the NFL sold broadcast rights to 19 different provincial satellite TV channels to show NFL highlights and games.

Mr. Lian, the Patriots fan, said the more games he has watched, the more he appreciates how defense is played. "China is the most populous country in the world. If the NFL is able to connect a small portion of the population through the Tencent deal, it'll be considered very successful."

Zhang Huan contributed to this article.

Write to Wayne Ma at wayne.ma@wsj.com and Alyssa Abkowitz at alyssa.abkowitz@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 22, 2017 08:11 ET (12:11 GMT)