In American sports broadcasting, there’s no seat more coveted than one in the broadcast booth of Monday Night Football, the thirty-nine-year old, once-per-week franchise for which ESPN pays US$1.1 billion per season. Over the years, it’s been home to some of the very best in American sports broadcasting (Al Michaels and John Madden most recently), and some of the most bizarre (Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith). But no matter who occupies that booth, the job remains essentially the same: entertaining one of America’s few remaining mass audiences, while serving its varying expectations, and understandings, of American football.
That’s really hard. But I argue it’s nothing compared to what Zhang Nan, the twenty-eight-year-old play-by-play man for NFL China’s weekly live streaming simulcast of Monday Night Football on Sina.com, faces on a weekly basis [directions for watching the broadcast, here]. Sure, the NFL has a small audience in China (roughly 20,000 viewers watch the weekly simulcast), but Zhang – as the play-by-play man – has a key role in helping the NFL expand it. And in doing so, it’s partly his responsibility to figure out a way to translate this most American of sports to a Chinese audience that has almost no knowledge or experience with it. The challenge is technical, cultural, and linguistic, and on Wednesday afternoon I spoke to Zhang (to the right of his broadcast partner, Guo Aibing, in the photo below) about how he handles the responsibilities.
The conversation ranged over a number of topics, and shifted between Chinese and English. As a result, I’ve edited the transcript a bit, for clarity, and rearranged some of the questions. But the words, as best as I was able to record them, are accurate.
Our interview was arranged and joined by Michael Stokes, Managing Director of NFL China. At a couple of points he interjected some thoughts, and I’ve added those to the edited transcript.
But mostly, this is about Zhang Nan.
Born in Beijing, he attended the Beijing Sports University where he majored in Physical Education, with a specialization in basketball. During his senior year – only five years ago! – he was introduced to American football via the NFL’s youth flag football program. That program, which has had success in expanding the league’s appeal inJapan, is designed to introduce middle-school and college-aged students to football and NFL fan-dom. Zhang, after graduation, joined a sports marketing firm that worked with the NFL on promoting the program, and today he works for another sports marketing firm – Key Solutions – where he continues to work on NFL promotions, including the flag football program (which is coming to Shanghai this weekend – see the end of this post for details). Anyway, to the interview:
SCRAP: American football is a complicated game with rules that sometime bewilder even its most devoted fans. As a result, many of those fans – me, included – tend to believe that you really need to grow up with the game to love it. But clearly, that’s not the case with you. So how did you come to learn the game, and enjoy it?
ZHANG: Five years ago, there weren’t any real football teachers or instructors or coaches in China. Working with the NFL Flag Football program, what we did initially was go to the language universities, and seek out foreign students and American students teaching in China. We really depended on their expertise. They would act as the head coaches, and the Chinese would be assistant coaches. That helped us to learn as we expanded the Flag Football program, and that’s how I began to appreciate it. You couldn’t see it on TV, but it was new and exciting.
SCRAP: So it wasn’t the sport so much, it was being a part of something new?
ZHANG: It wasn’t just that it was a new sport. As I learned more, bits and pieces, I began to see the value in the sport. I also began to see it as a way to get people into fitness. The athleticism was attractive. As I became more knowledgeable about the sport, the process of sharing that knowledge [through the flag football program, among other ways] really engaged me.
SCRAP: It’s a big leap to go from working sports marketing to being a commentator on Monday Night Football. Could you give me a sense of how that happened?
STOKES: Maybe I could jump in here. We’ve known and worked with Zhang Nan for five years. And he stood out. You know, you can always tell someone who is passionate about a sport. They’re passionate. Working on the flag football program, he treated it as more than just an introductory sports marketing job. There’s a passion for the sport there. You could him seeking out content online, or whatever the case may be. So it came about over time, because of a long-standing relationship. And also because of the passion there.
SCRAP: Zhang Nan, when you were first offered the job, it must have seemed daunting. What did you see as the biggest challenge?
ZHANG: For me, the biggest challenge is that there isn’t a lot of Chinese background information on these games. So doing the background research, translating the language into something that the Chinese understand, those are the challenges. You can’t translate John Madden word for word and expect a Chinese audience to understand it.
You know, it’s not like in the US where a person can go and find all of these channels telling you what’s happening in the NFL. I have to seek out resources, ESPN, say, to put these stories together to help the Chinese audience understand what’s happened historically, and this week.
Another big challenge is finding a balance between talking simply to beginning NFL fans, and talking too much about certain players, teams, and strategies for more advanced fans. If I make it too simple, then the actual fans find the broadcast boring. If I make it more advanced, we lose new fans.
SCRAP: So what is it about the NFL that attracts Chinese fans?
ZHANG: Our target demographic is 18 -30 year olds. In my opinion what attracts our demo is that the NFL is very unique to Chinese eyes. The teamwork aspect, in particular, the fact that all 11 people are working toward one common goal is attractive. Also, the game is very physical, and in that way it’s very different from anything that a Chinese person has seen or done in the sports arena.
SCRAP: From the perspective of a broadcaster and sports marketer, what aspects of American football most appeal to Chinese fans?
ZHANG: Right now, the development is still in the early stages. But for the new Chinese fans, the contact at the line of scrimmage, the fact that there’s tackling, the physical contact, makes people look twice. Also, the size of the players – that gets people to look twice. All of those of factors are unique and new to China. The knowledge level just isn’t where it is in the States. So there’s less focus on strategy. Instead, two lines of men crashing into each other, that gets attention.
SCRAP: So the “warrior” aspect of the game is a big part of the appeal.
ZHANG: Yeah, in China there isn’t anybody like these NFL athletes.
Now, in terms of my flag football training program. Yes, the kids are practicing for a game, but the end result isn’t what matters. Instead, the fact that somebody is taking time to help them become a better athlete is matters. Really, the Chinese students are grateful for that more than anything. The fact that they get to work-out a few hours per day and have somebody work with them – that matters a lot. So that attracts them, too.
SCRAP: Football, in many ways, is such a technical game, especially when it comes to vocabulary. How do you handle those translations? For example, what is the Chinese equivalent of the “Wildcat” offense?
ZHANG: Good question. A lot of terms are translated literally. Like “Wildcat.” I call it yemao [野貓]. Other terms, more technical ones, I go back to the English. For example, Cover 2, Cover 3 – I say those in English and the serious fans understand what I’m talking about. But, then again, the casual fans drop off. So the play calling and the terminology has to have a middle ground. It’s not so easy to make the choices.
SCRAP: Among many sports marketing people in the West, in particular, it’s widely believed that Chinese people only like to watch sports with Chinese athletes. For example, the NBA was popular in China before Yao Ming, but it became much more so afterward. With that in mind, do you think the NFL can attract Chinese fans to a sport in which it’s unlikely that we’ll see Chinese professionals any time soon?
ZHANG: Yes, the NBA has its Chinese stars like Yao Ming. But even before Yao, people watched the NBA. They had Michael Jordan. It was kind of a different level of interest, though. People watched because it was interesting and unique. Then, when Yao entered the league, it became a “I kind of can do it, too” kind of mentality. The NFL is moving along a similar path. We’re doing the same kind of thing – featuring Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, stars. I’m focusing on star players, certain teams – like the New England Patriots. Helping people know the teams, players, and then we can go broader and deeper.
SCRAP: What kind of feedback are you getting from the Chinese fans who watch the Sina broadcast?
STOKES: One of the great things about the sina.com stream is that we have a real-time chat going during the broadcast, and we literally have out people monitoring the conversation and feedback in the chatrooms. So if someone asks “Why did they go for 4th and 1 there?” we can pass that on to Zhang Nan and his counterpart. We feed instructions and comments to Zhang in his earpiece, and he can answer them in the course of the broadcast.
ZHANG: During the broadcast I follow the feedback happening in the chatroom on my laptop. I’ve found there are three types of people chatting there.
First, there are people who are new to the game. They want to be educated, and they’ll complain that I’m being too technical.
Second, on the other side, are the hardcore fans. They’ll demand more information and they’ll say, “You’re too shallow with your commentating.”
Third, there are the people in the middle who know a little about the game, and they want me to be more passionate. And this is because they’ve seen broadcasts of football games via ESPN, or online, and they’ve seen and know US style commentating, which is more emotional and expressive. Frankly, I don’t consider myself emotive and expressive. But they really want that passion
SCRAP: They want that American style, passionate commentating.
ZHANG: Right. What I try to do when I commentate is to create an environment such that the fans chatting feel like they’re at home with friends, talking about the game. I want the broadcast to be more of a conversation. Guo [Zhang’s partner] is more knowledgeable about the game’s history and background, and he’s more emotive. I see myself as more of a play-by-play commentator who answers the questions that people have in their head. I want it to be more of a conversation.
SCRAP: Out of curiosity, do you have favorite teams and players?
ZHANG: I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and Troy Polamalu is my favorite player.
SCRAP: Well, you know, I’m a lifelong Vikings fan, and the Steelers and Vikings play this weekend.
Sina’s live stream of Monday Night Football is available on Tuesday mornings at 8:30 AM, China time, here. Instructions on how to watch the broadcast can be found here (you’ll need to use Internet Explorer and a plug-in).
Sunday Night Football is available on Monday mornings, 7:30 AM, China time, in Shanghai on SMG, GDTV in Guangzhou, and nationwide by logging into QQ, here. You must agree to install the QQ LIVE player.
Finally, CCTV 5 broadcasts a weekly, half-hour NFL highlights program at 11:30 PM on Thursday nights. Starting October 29, the program will be preceded by a “NFL Blitz,” a specially produced NFL reality program recently written up in the Washington Post.