It’s game time. With Alibaba Group’s giant 11.11 Global Shopping Festival set to take place on Nov. 11, participating merchants are in full-scale preparation mode—and that includes NFL China, which is getting its online store on Alibaba’s Tmall.com shopping site whipped into shape for the world’s biggest 24-hour online sale.
The NFL is making strides in building a fan base in China, says Richard Young, managing director of NFL China, and the 11.11 sale is a chance to connect with more fans and sell more official league merchandise. Young doesn’t underplay the significance of the event: as a merchandising opportunity, 11.11 ranks up there with the Super Bowl and the season’s opening games, he says.
Alizila captured some of the NFL buzz surrounding 11.11 last year in the video below. In the following Q&A, Young caught us up on the league’s progress and its plans for the sale.
You said last year that the NFL fan base in China was relatively small but growing at an exponential rate. What progress have you made in 2016?
It’s continuing at pace. We’re coming off an incredibly strong year, the 2015-2016 season, and the buzz around this season is bigger and broader than ever. In the past five years the number of people interested in the NFL in China has grown more than 1,000 percent, from a little over 1.5 million to 19 million across China. Because our demographic is higher educated, has correspondingly higher income, busy, active people, we feel we may even be underestimating this.
This year we are seeing digital-streaming viewership up more than 30 percent year-on-year through Week 5, with an average of over 1.5 million viewers tuning in weekly just online alone, watching three NFL games: Thursday Night Football, Sunday Night Football, and Monday Night Football. We track online very closely. We feel it’s a very good reference for determining our active fan base, because it is appointment viewing—it’s something you have to search out to watch.
For Super Bowl 50 in February, we had over 15 million people watching live. With the time difference, these people tuned in at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday morning during Chinese New Year. Those are real fans. I don’t think I’m stretching it by saying it’s not easy to be an NFL fan in China. The growth we are seeing is testament to the entertainment value of the NFL.
So fans are watching on TV and online?
We’ve made sure with our media plan that the games are available when and where and how fans in China want to watch the NFL, whether it’s on TV, PC or mobile device. Our games come in on Monday mornings, Tuesday mornings and Friday mornings. We do feel that the majority of people will be displaced from their televisions so we’ve focused on a digital broadcast and distribution strategy. We still are on television, but we see our strongest growth coming from digital online streaming. We are currently on eight regional television broadcasters, and seven nationwide online broadcasters, as well as on our website, NFL China, and our subscription product, NFL Game Pass, which is only in English at this time.
In what other ways are you engaging fans?
In addition to our overall marketing and distribution efforts, we also hold on-ground events. The number of participants playing football has increased 200 percent in this year alone. There are over 6,500 people currently playing on as part of an organized program. Estimates indicate China has over 50 contact football teams, and we have over 150 flag football teams that are involved with our NFL FLAG football program. So these multiple leagues are out there playing competitively. And we have almost 20,000 Chinese who are engaged with American football as part of our NFL Play 60 partner programs, which encourages people to exercise at least 60 minutes a day.
China is seeing a real boom in youth playing American football. A lot of this comes from the fact that it’s really a best-in-class tool in providing lessons in teamwork, interdependence and leadership. Especially flag football, which is really a great group activity. A lot of it is learning these valuable life lessons in an educational environment that doesn’t always stress cooperation and group problem-solving. All sports teach teamwork, we just feel football does this more holistically than any other sport.
How is all this translating to merchandise sales in China?
It’s growing very strongly, although merchandise sales too are growing from a relatively small base. According to our research, fans follow the NFL as a sport because it embodies bravery, passion and leadership, as well as positivity, intelligence, teamwork and of course toughness. When you look at how you express yourself as a fan, you watch the games, you talk about it, but also purchasing something from your team allows you to demonstrate your avidity or your loyalty to your team.
While we are small, we have a very tight-knit community of fans. Saying you are an NFL fan can in many ways define you as a cultural explorer, as somebody who seeks out the very best in sports, in entertainment, and probably somebody who seeks out the very best in all things in life. So it can define you just like your watch, your clothes, your car, what you drink. I think people are starting to see this, and that’s where a lot of our growth in merchandise sales comes from.
What percentage of NFL merchandise revenue in China is generated online through the NFL Tmall store?
It’s definitely the majority. Tmall was our first platform and remains our strongest. NFL sales on Tmall were up 36 percent January through September 2016 compared to that period in 2015. So we expect a very strong year. It’s our broadest platform as well.
How important is 11.11 to your year?
11.11 is always a very important time of the year for us. We know it’s going to be big, so a chance for us to add more product offerings, giving our fans more choice. In terms of merchandising, we see three big events each year: NFL Kickoff [the start of the season], 11.11 and the Super Bowl. Those are all three equally important.
This year what are you doing to prepare for 11.11?
From an operations standpoint we really build up our team to ensure that we’re prepared, adding everything from packing materials to inventory level. We want to make sure we can fulfill the orders of the fans responding to 11.11 offers and that they have a great shopping experience, from the website all the way to the point where they receive the official NFL licensed merchandise.
What about special promotions?
We’re doing significant promotions via both desktop and mobile on Tmall, ensuring we are getting the awareness and exposure throughout the Alibaba network. There are specific 11.11 landing and campaign pages for the Tmall official promotional channel. We also have some special 11.11 promotional items.
This year we are going to be featuring the [New England] Patriots. That is the most popular team in China—people like a winner. We have a special edition 11.11 item and pricing for VF Majestic Patriot shirts, over 50 percent off. Those will probably be gone very quickly, but we just had Peyton Manning in town, and we will be doing a promotional giveaway: customers who place the top 5 paid orders on 11.11 will have a chance to win something autographed by Peyton Manning. We’ll also be doing some flash sales throughout the 24-hour period on key items like Wilson footballs and team scarves, hoodies and caps. Throughout the 24-hour sale period, there will be limited-time discounts on special items and we’ll offer free shipping on everything.
You’ve ramped it up from last year?
Yes we have, we’ve gotten the response to it. We see this growth continuing for the foreseeable future. The Seahawks have a sign over the locker room exit door that says “Win Forever.” We almost consider having something that says “Grow Forever” over our door. This is because we really feel the quality of the NFL entertainment experience—while lacking some of the touchpoints of other sports to grow quickly, namely being an Olympic sport and having country-versus-country competition—will continue to attract new fans. Over time people are demanding the very best use of their leisure time and we think we have the best-in-class product.