By Tom Huddleston Jr.
August 22, 2017

The NFL is looking to grow its digital audience overseas through a new streaming deal the league signed with Chinese tech giant Tencent.

Announced on Monday, the three-year deal grants Tencent exclusive streaming rights to live and on-demand NFL games in China, including all regular season and playoff games as well as the Super Bowl. Those games will be available in China to stream for free on Tencent’s variety of platforms, including Tencent Sports and the company’s flagship social network WeChat, which touts roughly 960 monthly active users and accounts for almost 30% of China’s mobile apps usage.

Users of Tencent’s platforms will also get access to additional NFL-related content, including coverage of the annual NFL Draft and original programming like HBO’s NFL Hard Knocks. The NFL and Tencent did not disclose the financial terms of the three-year deal.

The NFL has been working to grow its fanbase in China in recent years, including by sending some of the league’s biggest stars, like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, to promote the sport in an attempt to spark greater interest in professional football. The league is reportedly even considering playing an eventual regular-season game in China. Currently, though, the NFL still trails sports like soccer and basketball in terms of popularity in China. Notably, the NBA signed a five-year streaming deal with Tencent two years ago that’s reportedly worth $700 million.

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This year’s Super Bowl drew 7.5 million viewers on China’s popular messaging platform Sina Weibo, where the NFL streamed the game for free, so there certainly is some interest in the sport. But the huge time difference between the U.S. and China means that the start times for most NFL games fall in the middle of the night in China, which makes the option of either streaming games live or on-demand that much more appetizing for Chinese fans.

The NFL’s regular season TV ratings were down 9% last year, and a fair amount of blame for the decline went to the fact that younger viewers have become increasingly distracted by the plethora of streaming entertainment options online and social media. So, it makes sense that the NFL would want to capture a larger share of the digital audience, both overseas and at home. That’s another reason why Amazon’s purchase of streaming rights for Thursday NFL games is such a big deal—also evidenced by the fact that Amazon is reportedly charging advertisers millions of dollars for ad packages for those games.

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