The Day China Watched the Super Bowl

The Day China Watched the Super Bowl

The Chicago Bears played the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome. The Bears won. --- Image by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS

Why you should care

Because the 1986 Super Bowl broadcast in China was a pivotal moment for the now-global powerhouse.

“Ms. Hale, the White House is calling for you.”

That was the last thing Lyric Hale expected to hear at the House of Hunan, a Chinese joint in Chicago where she was eating dinner with a friend in March 1986. The official’s message? President Ronald Reagan knew she was planning to broadcast the Super Bowl in China, and he wanted to address the Chinese people.

“I was speechless,” says Hale, the then-20-something CEO of a small marketing firm that liaised between American advertisers and Chinese media.

She also had been working tirelessly to get the 1986 Super Bowl — in which the Chicago Bears bludgeoned the New England Patriots 46-10 — to air on Chinese Central Television. Despite CCTV being the only station for approximately 450 million Chinese television viewers, Hale still couldn’t believe what she saw on Sunday, March 9. The usually bustling streets of Beijing were deserted, and the only exceptions were the crowds of a few hundred that gathered to watch the game on a tiny screen in front of department stores, blocking entire roads, says David Hughes, a former U.S. Department of Commerce official who worked in China at the time. “It was impossible to imagine how excited people were,” Hale says.

It was the first time any foreign leader had directly addressed the Chinese population.

Which is something of an understatement. When Hale asked CCTV how many people watched the matchup, she couldn’t believe her ears: 300 million. Let that sink in: 300 million was more than the population of the United States at the time and more than three times the number of Americans who had watched the game live two months earlier, according to Nielsen.

It was the first time American football had been broadcast in the insular country of 1 billion. And with a minutes-long introduction from President Reagan, read by U.S. Ambassador to China Winston Lord, it was the first time any foreign leader had directly addressed the Chinese population. Reagan, a former sportscaster himself, got right to the point: “Although the sport is a profit-making business — each team is privately owned — the people of each city take pride in their local teams.”

Just 10 years earlier, there was no way those words would have been heard by millions of Chinese. Credit the rise of Deng Xiaoping in the late ’70s and early ’80s, whose policies of openness were a drastic pivot from his predecessor, Mao Zedong. Xiaoping wanted the Chinese to experience the world in all its color, says Hughes — and what’s more colorful than the Super Bowl (which featured scantily clad cheerleaders back then, too)? “Xiaoping made his people confront reality,” Hughes says.

Which they did with open arms — at least when it came to “olive ball,” the term Hale and her colleagues invented for American football (so as not to confuse it with soccer). In fact, they invented an entirely new vocabulary for the game’s commentary. People were enthralled, though still confused. “It’s fierce, it’s intense … and I don’t get it at all,” 102-year-old Beijing native Zhu Yongan told The Associated Press at the time. No matter. Marveling at 300-pound lineman and ball-carrier William “the Refrigerator” Perry and hearing of his penchant for eating four whole chickens a day was plenty of entertainment all on its own. As was the Super Bowl Shuffle.

Of course, many are rightfully skeptical that 300 million Chinese citizens really watched the game. Determining viewership is no exact science, especially for 1980s China. Back then, the standard measurement was reach — or how many people had access to television and could potentially have tuned in, says Stefan Szymanski, co-director of the Michigan Center for Sport Management at the University of Michigan. “I’d be astonished if that many actually watched it,” he says, before adding, “unless it was completely state-backed.” Which it apparently was. Almost every newspaper in China published thorough explanations of America’s most popular sport. Even People’s Daily, the de facto national paper, carried one written by David Hughes on the front page.

The following year, just as many people tuned in to watch the Denver Broncos fall to the New York Giants. When ESPN bought the rights to broadcast the NFL in 1989, it continued to air games in China — but they were shown live, which meant early Monday morning. Now, there are approximately 14 million fans in China, and that number is growing “tremendously” every year, says Richard Young, managing director of NFL China.

That’s nowhere near 300 million, but still, to tap Humphrey Bogart: We’ll always have 1986. “A few things in life are just magical, and everything goes right beyond your wildest dreams,” an emotional Hale tells OZY. “This was one of them.”

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