American Rules football targets Asia for growth

The USA's National Football League is broadening its marketing strategy to enhance the appeal of American-Rules football to foreign countries, such as China and Japan. "With the right coaching, with the right resources, anybody can play this game ... We often pigeonhole ourselves that this is just a North American phenomenon. It's not," Gordon Smeaton, head of the NFL's international operations, told Reuters.

The NFL has played preseason games abroad for 55 years, including one in Tokyo last month. However, for the first time in the NFL's 86-year history, the Arizona Cardinals will "host" a regular season game against the San Francisco 49ers on 2 October at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca, where a crowd topping 100,000 is expected.

The NFL has also introduced flag football - a non-contact version of the sport played by children - to more than 80 Chinese middle schools over the last two-and-a-half years, hosted the flag football world championship last month in Beijing and is looking at helping Chinese high schools to add tackle programmes to ensure flag football players keep playing as they get older. It launched a Mandarin Chinese version of its website two years ago and hopes to stage a preseason game in Beijing ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

"People have to feel comfortable with the game," said Smeaton. "What we're finding particularly in Asia is our Japanese and Chinese fans love the strategy. If it's a battle for territory and you make that point clear, it starts to make a lot more sense."