NFL UK’s Yao Ming?

From Gloucester to gridiron. Rugby union sensation, Louis Rees-Zammit’s recent venture into the NFL captured the imagination of fans across the UK, as the 23-year-old put pen to paper on a three-year deal with back-to-back Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs.

With Rees-Zammit moving one step closer to realising his boyhood dream, the Welsh athlete could prove to be the spark that ignites an unprecedented explosion in NFL fandom this side of the pond – utilising a blueprint drawn-up by Chinese NBA star Yao Ming, decades prior. As Rees-Zammit celebrates his latest sporting milestone, we Decyfr whether Yao’s pivotal role in China’s basketball craze could foreshadow Rees-Zammit inspiring a new wave of British NFL fans.

Arguably, one of the biggest barriers to the NFL’s popularity in the UK has always been this country’s love of rugby – with many fans refusing to give American football the time of day – referring to it as ‘long’, ‘boring’ and ‘soft’ due to player’s helmets and padding. Therefore, what better way for the NFL to galvanise those fans than by having one of rugby’s most transcendent talents leave to pursue a career in American football’s pre-eminent league.

Enter Louis Rees-Zammit. With lightning-fast speed and unparalleled playmaking ability, the Welsh wing quickly won over the nation as he racked up 38 tries in just 68 appearances for Gloucester and 14 tries and 31 caps for Wales – earning him four appearances for the British and Irish Lions – all before his 23rd birthday. When the young speedster then announced his intention of joining the NFL’s International Player Pathway program (IPP), millions of British rugby fans suddenly found themselves looking over to America’s biggest game. But where could this sudden draw to the sport lead?

Prior to 2002, China’s unwavering love for ping pong seemed to have monopolised the nation’s sporting market – with the country’s obsession stemming from Rong Guotuan’s unexpected victory at the 1959 World Table Tennis Championship and the National Sport Commission’s subsequent allocation of resources to the sport. That was until seven-foot-six basketball sensation Yao Ming was drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets at the 2002 NBA Draft. Instantly giving China a new national hero and a sport to rival ping pong.

Over the course of his Hall-of-Fame career, Yao averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game – becoming iconic for going toe-to-toe with fellow NBA big-man, Shaquille O’Neal, as his stardom in China reached new heights. Former Rockets general manager, Carroll Dawson even said: “Walking around China with Yao Ming is like walking through New York with The Beatles.”

In 2006, 270 NBA games were broadcast across 24 Chinese TV networks – 69 of them featuring the Rockets, as per The New York Times. As a result, China’s love of the game quickly grew far beyond just the nation’s favourite son. By 2006 – only four years into his career – Yao had already slipped to third in jersey sales in China.

Whilst Yao was indisputably the catalyst, the increased number of games broadcast in China led the public to realise that the NBA was littered with superstars. As stated by author of ‘Yao: A Life in Two Worlds’, Ric Bucher: “[fans] recognise that [Yao’s] not the best player in the NBA.” In fact, The New York Times noted that, “according to an Associated Press report, 800 pairs of a special-edition [Tracy] McGrady shoe sold out in Chinese stores in one day,” as China quickly became “a consequential and growing market for the NBA and the league’s fifth-largest outlet for licensed products.”

This growth has continued over the last two decades. In 2022, ESPN reported that the NBA’s business in China was valued at $5 billion – with the teams’ owners collectively having more than $10 billion tied up in the country. An incredible turnaround for a country that only 20 years prior, had ping pong as their undisputed number one sport.

With The NFL Media Research Department currently recognising 14.3 million UK-based fans, alongside a reported 12 million rugby union fans in the UK, as per Nielsen Sports, the potential for Rees-Zammit to become NFL UK’s very own Yao Ming is irrefutable.

NFL UK general manager, Henry Hodgson recently told Decyfr about the impact Rees-Zammit’s decision has already had on young athletes across the UK and the NFL Academy: “It shows young kids who are rugby players, that there is a different pathway potentially for them.

“I’d expect the beneficiary to be the NFL Academy where 14, 15, 16-year-olds who are playing rugby might say – ‘I’ll give this a go’,” said Hodgson.

In the same way that Yao initially made headlines with his extraordinary height – height that even surprised Shaq – Rees-Zammit’s speed has prompted considerable excitement. Having reached a top speed of 24.2 mph, fans are calling for Rees-Zammit to take Tyreek Hill’s crown as the NFL’s fastest player – with Hill maxing out at 23.2 mph.

Despite his physical prowess, however, the former Gloucester star will almost certainly have a much harder time making a tangible impact on the NFL’s popularity in the UK than Yao did with the NBA in China. Put it this way – 37 IPP players have signed to NFL rosters since its inception, numerous Brits have experienced success in the league and multiple international players have signed major contracts – with former Australian rugby star, Jordan Mailata recently signing a three-year extension worth $66 million with the Philadelphia Eagles – yet no one has had the ‘Yao Ming effect’ on the NFL internationally. But why is that?

Appearing on Jason and Travis Kelce’s podcast, New Heights, Mailata expressed his opinion that, on the whole, rugby players aren’t capable of transferring to the NFL – “I think there are some specimens that can transfer over, but for the most part a lot of people think that rugby players can transfer over, but [American football] is a tough sport.”

While Rees-Zammit may be one of said “specimens”, learning any new sport isn’t easy – let alone learning the intricacies of a playbook and adjusting to the nuances of American football in such a short space of time. A learning curve of this nature wasn’t something that Yao had to endure – having played basketball since the age of 13 – allowing the future 8x NBA All-Star to become the generational talent he needed to be in order to stimulate China’s NBA fandom. It’s highly unlikely, despite his success in rugby union, that Rees-Zammit will inspire the NFL Academy or the nation in a ‘Yao-esque’ manner unless he dominates in the NFL to the same degree.

Having said that, the NFL’s continued internationalisation via their Global Market’s Program (GMP) – which grants teams marketing and commercialisation rights to 19 countries around the globe – demonstrates the lengths that the league would go to in order to promote Rees-Zammit’s success with the Chiefs. Even considering that Kansas City aren’t one of the UK’s six GMP teams, Rees-Zammit’s presence has given the franchise a ‘golden ticket’ to an entire country – with the Welshman’s near 700k followers across social media primed to join Chiefs Kingdom.

As of right now, Rees-Zammit’s NFL story is yet to be written. In fact, we’ve barely put pen to paper. But, if he can replicate his dominance on the rugby pitch and electrify Arrowhead Stadium, we may well be on course to witness NFL UK’s answer to the Yao Ming Phenomenon.

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