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Patriots lead NFL drive for fans in China

The New England Patriots, champions of the National Football League three of the past four years, have set their sights on a new prize: China.

The Patriots struck a deal this month with Sina.com, one of the most popular Chinese-language websites in the world, to include Chinese-language coverage of the team and a primer about how to play American football. The team already devotes a portion of its website, Patriots.com, to Chinese-language coverage, including a fan blog written by MIT student Tian He, and the team sells T-shirts with ''World Champions" written in Mandarin, the official language of China.

The NFL, like most major professional US sports leagues and many major corporations, is drawn to China's emerging economic power, its increasing appetite for investment from overseas, and its interest in sports leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, to be held in Beijing. With China's 1.3 billion people, broadcast rights could be lucrative if the league can build a loyal fan base.

American sports leagues also see an opportunity to profit along with their American corporate sponsors, who are eager to sell everything from beer to sneakers in China. Reebok International Ltd. of Canton, for example, launched a NBA-branded shoe in China in December 2002; the next year, the NBA said, China became the biggest market for NBA-Reebok footwear outside North America.

The NFL, whose most successful overseas initiative to date is NFL Europe, a six-team league that holds its championship game today in Dusseldorf, Germany, renewed its interest in China about three years ago. At 85 middle schools around the country, the NFL has organized flag football teams -- a less-violent version of the game where defenders snatch a flag looped through an opponent's belt to stop their progress rather than tackle them. It also signed a broadcasting deal with Shanghai Media Group to air the Super Bowl and other magazine-style programming. NFL Commissioner Paul J. Tagliabue flew to China in May to meet with television executives and government officials.

As the league's interest in China grows, the Patriots are a natural choice to represent the sport. In addition to the visibility they enjoy from their Super Bowl titles, team owner Robert Kraft has substantial business operations in China through his paper-trading company, International Forest Products. ''We're comfortable and familiar with China," said Jonathan Kraft, Robert Kraft's son and the vice chairman of the team.

Jonathan Kraft has expressed strong interest in taking the Patriots to China if the NFL ever decides to play an exhibition game there. League officials have indicated they are considering a game before the Olympics.

''We'd be honored to be one of the teams that was asked to go and play the first NFL game in China," Kraft said.

Still, the NFL remains well behind the NBA in the Chinese market. The NBA has been investing in China since the late 1970s, when the Washington Bullets traveled to China to play two exhibition games. The league now has 14 broadcast partners and showed nearly 300 games during the 2004-05 season. It also boasts an international star in Houston Rockets' center Yao Ming.

Major League Baseball also has identified China as its top development market, and the league sponsors traveling baseball exhibits there. Its games are not widely distributed yet on national television, but it is in negotiations to get more of its games aired. The league also sent former Red Sox pitcher Bruce Hurst to China to instruct the Chinese National team.

The NFL briefly broadcast the Super Bowl in China in the mid-1980s, but the league soon put more of its development focus on Japan, Mexico, Europe, and Canada. The league reentered the market about three years ago to build a presence from the ground up. Pressure from the league's corporate sponsors also played a role in the decision: League officials said Reebok pushed the NFL to expand its operations in China.

Despite the NFL's late entrance to China, there are signs that its momentum is growing. Although about 8 million Chinese viewers watched its 2004 Super Bowl broadcast, about 20 million tuned in this year, said Gordon Smeaton, vice president of NFL International. The NFL expects to make money on its Chinese operations within five years, Smeaton said.

The Patriots have expressed interest in traveling to China, but the league is moving carefully on the idea of an exhibition game. Smeaton said the NFL would like to host a game before 2008, but only if it has laid the proper groundwork first.

As the NFL pushes into China, the Patriots have established themselves as one of the most aggressive individual teams competing for the market, league officials said. The Oakland Raiders also have a Chinese website, but Patriots executives said they are the only ones to sign a deal with the Chinese portal, Sina.com, for broader distribution.

Under terms of the team's deal with Sina, no money will change hands initially. But if the team makes money on advertising revenue, Sina will get a portion of the profits, said Fred Kirsch, Patriots' director of interactive media. Down the road, the team wants to sell Chinese shirts and other merchandise over the site, he said.

The Patriots hope that, as the NFL builds its Chinese fan base, some of those new fans will embrace the Patriots.

''If they're going to be NFL fans, we want to them to be Patriots fans," Kirsch said. ''We think football is one of the greatest sports in the world. If we do our job right, maybe they'll think the same."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

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