In China, eight is a lucky number. NFL officials are hoping the same is true for them.
To mark that tradition, the league recently donated 88 specially painted footballs to the Beijing Olympic Committee, as part of an effort to promote the 2008 Games in China. Meanwhile, outside Chicago, Roger Goodell was being elected the eighth commissioner of the most popular sports league in America.
If lucky eights have anything to do with it, the NFL could be on its way to playing its first game in China next summer, in the first year of the reign of its eighth commissioner. And the Patriots may very well be one of the teams in Beijing.
The Patriots are among a half-dozen teams that have indicated a willingness to travel to China for an event that would be used as a dry run by both Chinese officials preparing to stage the 2008 Games and NBC, which would televise the game and use the experience to prepare for its Olympic broadcasts. The NFL staged a similar exhibition game in Australia in 1999, one year prior to the Olympics in Sydney, so this is not without precedent.
But one pro football game is not the real goal of the NFL in China.
The real goal is to reach the largest consumer market in the world with a game that has only recently been introduced there. This season, for example, CCTV, China's national television network, will simulcast NBC's Sunday night games, as well as the Thursday night season opener from Pittsburgh, using its own announcers. The Sunday night games will air on Monday mornings in China.
In addition, the Oakland Raiders recently hosted coaches from China's growing flag football program, which had a team in this year's NFL Flag Football World Championships in Cologne, Germany. China has been involved in that event since 2003. It finished ninth in 2004, fifth last year, and made it to the knockout round before losing to Spain last week.
In all these ways and more, the NFL is trying to forge a relationship with the most populous country in the world to tap a massive new market and add revenue streams.
``To continue to grow, you have to have an international business presence," said Pete Abitante, senior director of international public affairs for the NFL. ``China is such an untapped market for us. That's why flag football is important to us. When you think about how you learned to play football, it was, `Go down to the fire hydrant and I'll throw you a pass.'
``Flag football is a good place to start because it's the simplest form of the game for kids 11 to 14. Bringing flag football to their schools is a way to show we're not just there to bring in NFL games."
The league has sent representatives to China several times to discuss possible ventures, including a trip last May when they took not only commissioner Paul Tagliabue to Beijing and Shanghai but potentially the league's greatest ambassador: former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis. Lewis was a hit not because of his football prowess but because he speaks fluent Mandarin, which he learned during a two-year mission in Taichung, Taiwan, before attending Brigham Young University.
``You talk about catching people off guard," Abitante recalled. ``You can't get any more American-looking than Chad, and then he opens his mouth and he's speaking to the people in their language. He even signed autographs in Chinese characters. We're trying to open doors there little by little."
The next big effort will involve a preseason game next August, with the target date -- naturally -- 8/8/2007. There is still much work to be done before it becomes reality, including finding a local promoter in China to handle the logistics. But the desire is there on all sides, including the Patriots'.
``Nothing is finalized, but we're interested in bringing a game there, and the Chinese seem interested," Abitante said. ``We polled the teams to see who would be willing to go and there is interest among a half-dozen teams, including the Patriots.
``We have some people coming back from meetings there this week so we'll know better where we stand after that, but the Chinese know we'd bring a big event, and NBC is as interested as the Chinese are."
A push for a patriotic tribute
Tim Bonin hasn't forgotten Pat Tillman, and he doesn't want you to, either.
For the past three years, Bonin was chief financial officer of the San Miguel School in Providence, a middle school for at-risk urban boys formed by the Christian Brothers 13 years ago; it is now used as a model for 13 such schools around the country.
When Bonin isn't out raising money to keep the school going, he's working on a website, themissingpatriot.com, which is an effort to persuade first the Patriots and then the entire NFL to retire the No. 40 once worn by the former Cardinals defensive back, who gave up a million-dollar career to join the Army and then lost his life from friendly fire during a night maneuver in Afghanistan.
Bonin, who has a Patriots jersey with Tillman's name and number framed and hanging over his desk, believes he and a small but growing band of compatriots can create enough momentum to right what he feels was a wrong by the NFL, which he says ``dropped the ball" when it designated only one weekend two years ago to honor Tillman.
Bonin feels Tillman's life is ``a lesson for our youth," a lesson about courage but also about sacrifice. Bonin has started an on line petition asking Patriots owner Robert Kraft to be the first outside of Arizona to retire Tillman's number.
Bonin's efforts began a week ago when the Cardinals came to Foxborough. At that game, there was one banner in the parking lot acknowledging the ``missing patriot" effort. This weekend, he said, there will be two. So it goes with a grass-roots movement that hopes to use Tillman's life as an inspiration for young people.
``At the school, kids would come in and ask about the No. 40 and I used that to explain the message of Pat Tillman's life," Bonin said. ``I saw how the message resonated with those kids. That got me thinking."
One person who signed the online petition was a Patriots season ticket-holder who said he would make a banner for last night's game.
``Ironically, he was the 40th person to sign on," Bonin said. ``We reached as far south as Florida and as far west as Oregon and Anchorage. At that point, I knew that we were going to be just fine.
``We have kind of a captive audience in Mr. Kraft's parking lots so we can go around and talk about our effort. You get a lot of cheerleader groups there trying to raise money. We're not asking for anything but people's interest in honoring Pat Tillman and the guys like him who gave up so much for our country.
``I don't want this to be rushed. In many respects, this effort has to be about us -- the fans and good people of New England -- before we look to anyone else. The key here is for this thing to grow slowly. The Kraft family should know this and shouldn't feel pressured into action or even commenting on it from us anytime soon.
``I want to grow this thing and plan to work very hard at it. Others are, too. This is a movement about people uniting, which I think Mr. Kraft would appreciate.
``He was a patriot. So are we. Eventually, we'd hope to make a case to Mr. Kraft that [retiring No. 40] is worth doing. We understand the league is very strict about the way it does things, so if they can't do it as a stand-alone, maybe he will take it to the league and start a dialogue. A lot can be told to young people from Pat Tillman's life."
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.