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University Of Illinois Engages Chinese Students With Mandarin Football Broadcast


1.3 million foreign students, the majority of them Asian, are enrolled in American schools. That's a whopping 85 percent increase in just the last decade. And it's changing the way colleges and universities are going about even the most routine operations. Rob McColley has this example from one of America's largest universities.

ROB MCCOLLEY, BYLINE: The University of Illinois began recruiting students from China in 1909. Today, it has the largest Chinese population among American universities - a full 12 percent of its student body. But in all that time, Chinese students rarely got deeply involved with campus culture. So this fall, the U of I sought to integrate its Chinese community the same way it brings the rest of its student body together, Saturday afternoon football.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

MCCOLLEY: In a radio booth eight stories above the field where Red Grange and Dick Butkus became legends, an experiment is underway. They're offering football play-by-play in Mandarin. Mike Waddell, who's with the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, says it just makes sense.

MIKE WADDELL: A few years ago, DIA started to do a football 101 clinic, and a large number of the people who came to the event were Chinese.

MCCOLLEY: Inspired by that turnout, Waddell fired off an e-mail to a group of Chinese students seeking prospective sportscasters. Chosen for the job were Yekai Lu and Liaohan He, both juniors from Chengdu, the capital of Szechuan Province. He is studying sports management, and he's on a mission to convert Chinese students to rabid football fans.

LIAOHAN HE: Here, students are - they think they don't like football. After one game or two, they fall in love with it. And they ask me - hey, thank you for reaching out. This is a great experience. I hope, you know, you can reach to more people.

MCCOLLEY: Lu is an agricultural finance major. He says, while there's potential to attract a Chinese audience, the devil is in the details.

YEKAI LU: I wouldn't say they have no interest. They just - they are not exposed to the game. Maybe just by listening to our broadcast, explaining the rules, you know, there is great potential that they really like this.

MCCOLLEY: Lu's assessment proved accurate, according Shilin Sun, a Chinese student who listened to their broadcasts. He believes He and Lu might attract a Chinese audience because they're more animated than American sportscasters.

SHILIN SUN: I think it's pretty similar to Mandarin broadcasts in China. I think it's very emotional, you know, because you have to be very passionate about the sport and then get the audiences engaged.

MCCOLLEY: How passionate are they? Here's a typical touchdown call.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Mandarin).

MCCOLLEY: Rough translation - blocked punt, recovery and touchdown. All in all, their boss, Mike Waddell, says he's pleased with the response so far.

WADDELL: It was fun to go through the stands at the Kent State game and to be able to see our Chinese students listening to the game on the free stream via their smart phone. Why can't we be China's Big Ten team? Why can't we be China's football team?

MCCOLLEY: For their part, the two Chinese announcers are enjoying the ride.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Mandarin).

MCCOLLEY: They have just two more football games to broadcast in Mandarin but they hope to move on to volleyball and basketball. And that'll be easier because people in China already understand those games. For NPR News, I'm Rob McColley in Champaign-Urbana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob McColley