The NFL is aggressively moving to expand its presence in China, and the league recently deployed Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to Shanghai to do that. Part of that expansion involves working with Amazon.com rival Alibaba.
Wilson was in Shanghai launching an NFL-branded flag football league. During his time there, Wilson hosted a camp for teenage players, promoted Alibaba’s Alipay (a Paypal and Venmo rival), and met with Alibaba executives at the company’s headquarters. Broadcasting from Alibaba’s offices, he told fans in a video posted to Twitter to expect “big things” in the near future.
“Here at the Alibaba headquarters it’s been an amazing, amazing time,” Wilson said. “We can’t wait to do all the things we’re going to do. It’s going to be exciting. Big things coming our way, your way. It’s going to be fun. China we love you.”
China! It’s been real & amazing! Thanks @AlibabaGroup
Can’t wait to do some ground breaking things! @Ciara & @West2EastEmpire pic.twitter.com/5Npf5jAlpm
— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) July 6, 2018
Wilson’s visit to China is part of NFL China’s broad efforts to expand its footprint in one of the world’s largest consumer markets. The league has been doubling down on this initiative by engaging young players with amateur leagues.
NFL China Managing Director Richard Young said he believes China represents a massive opportunity. In 2017, the NFL struck a three-year media partnership with Alibaba’s closest Chinese rival Tencent. That deal gave Tencent the rights to digitally distribute live and on-demand preseason and postseason games in China, as well as NFL highlight shows and original series, such as NFL Hard Knocks. Also last year, the NFL launched a store on Alibaba ecommerce site Tmall to give fans access to authentic merchandise, such as hats and jerseys.
Efforts such as these have started to pay off in the form of increased fan interest and higher sales, according to Young.
A visit to Hangzhou #China for @DangeRussWilson and @ciara includes meetings with Alibaba execs, trying out @Alipay and, of course, a Hail Mary pass. WATCH! @NFL @AntFinancial pic.twitter.com/wwsHNH6UZs
— Alibaba Group (@AlibabaGroup) July 4, 2018
“It used to be fairly rare to see somebody with a Seahawks hat or jersey, but you see it all the time now. And sales every year have been going up and going up,” he said in a video posted by Alibaba. “If you look at the most important asset of the league, it’s our fans. And we feel that the fan opportunity here, in China, is tremendous. We’ve seen tremendous growth already.”
Wilson hasn’t elaborated much yet on what he meant in the video posted to Twitter promising big things. But perhaps that might include the production of original content. The NFL already has a strong U.S. digital presence on Amazon.com (this season will be the second in a row that the league grants Thursday Night Football rights to Amazon). NFL China sees both content and youth leagues as its ticket to expanding its footprint in China.
“I truly believe that football is going to be a global sport very, very fast around every major country,” Wilson said. “We are dedicated to China, dedicated to making a difference here, and really teaching football and getting football going here.”