The NFL is pushing, and London is doing its best to prove that the appetite is there. The move from three regular season games in London to eight, plus any potential post-season action, would create an immediate lever for increased engagement
Edward WillisEdward Willis is Sports Business and Marketing Manager at Sports Marketing Surveys Inc, which works on research projects with the likes of The Wimbledon Championships, The R&A and the European Tour.
It’s no secret that the Superbowl is one of the most watched sporting events in the world, albeit dominated in the most part by its US audience. That being said, in terms of raw volume of mentions of the NFL online, the UK is now the number-two market for the sport, above the likes of Canada, Mexico and Brazil.
Taking a look at the numbers in more detail, the UK still only managed to secure a relatively small 3 per cent of total mentions online during the first week of the NFL season last month. That doesn’t, however, tell the full story about the recent growth of the sport in the UK.
With the NFL’s London series of fixtures now an established part of the regular season, this year marks the first year a reigning Superbowl champion (the Philadelphia Eagles) is playing in London, and the increasing presence of the best sides can only boost the profile of the sport in the UK.
Aside from the Philadelphia Eagles’ involvement, the 2018 series also marks the appearance of one of the NFL’s star quarterbacks, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, while London’s most regular visitors, the Jacksonville Jaguars, made a run to last year’s postseason.
It’s clear that the NFL has been a bigger part of the sporting conversation in the UK than usual
Combine these with the fact that Jaguars and Fulham owner Shahid Khan made a bid to purchase Wembley during the off-season and it’s clear that the NFL has been a bigger part of the sporting conversation in the UK than usual.
Off-field dramas like kneeling for the anthem also play their part in boosting the profile of the sport. Colin Kaepernick is a much less controversial figure in the UK, with most fans in agreement with players’ right to kneel for the anthem, but campaigns such as the 30th anniversary of Nike’s ‘Just do it’ have helped drive engagement at the start of the new season and appeared in a high proportion of mentions of the sport in the first week of the season.
Looking into the off-field activity in closer detail, events such as the NFL’s annual Kickoff event on Regent Street have been important drivers of the sport’s growth in the UK, aiming to put the sport at the heart of London and introduce people to the sport and its partners.
That event, timed for the first weekend of regular season action, attracted overwhelming support online (97 per cent of comments that expressed an opinion were positive, with just 3 per cent negative). Notably, that event also attracted a more equal balance of commentary from men and women. In total, 33 per cent of comments about the NFL Piccadilly event came from women, as opposed to only 20 per cent of total mentions of the NFL from the UK, suggesting that these sorts of events are an effective way of reaching a broader audience.
Arguably the standout feature of the NFL’s UK marketing is that it has remained unashamedly American.
Subway, the main NFL UK sponsor, did not issue a single tweet about the NFL Kickoff event in Piccadilly on 8 September
For example, Subway, the main NFL UK sponsor, did not issue a single tweet about the NFL Kickoff event in Piccadilly on 8 September. The UK page didn’t even alert potential fans to the event a week in advance, sending just three consecutive tweets featuring Subway’s partnership with the NFL between 23 August and 1 September. Between the 1 September and 11 September, only one tweet featuring Subway’s partnership with the NFL was shared to the company’s Twitter page, and 18 hours in, the tweet had attracted only 15 likes.
Some might argue that this is because the UK market is more sceptical of commercialisation of ‘its’ sports, but the UK market is no stranger to this. It’s still far removed from US levels of advertising and partnership, but the sports sponsorship market is evolving, with corporate sponsors increasingly looking for community engagement to tie their brands to the cultural and physical values of the sports they invest in. With little suggestion that American football participation in schools or clubs is going to skyrocket, it is hard to see the NFL appealing in the same way as other traditional team and individual sports to corporate partners.
Given that the timing of fixtures is well outside UK primetime windows, the viewing figures might also detract from the appeal and value of partnership rights. That’s not to say, however, that we should rule out the idea that an NFL franchise might one day be established in the UK, an idea that has generated widespread chatter in the public domain in recent years.
The NFL is pushing, and London is doing its best to prove that the appetite is there. Assuming it does happen, the move from three regular season games in London to eight, plus any potential post-season action, would create an immediate lever for increased engagement with the NFL in all forms.
So what are the challenges moving forwards?
Many of the current UK core market for NFL grew up watching the game when it was covered on Channel 4 in the 1980s. In fact, it’s telling that almost two-thirds of online commentary originates from over 35s in the UK, whereas the figure is only two fifths internationally. Ensuring that a new generation grows up watching and hearing about NFL is vital to the sport’s long-term aims in the UK.
Growing the fanbase will undoubtedly require keeping the sport in the public eye in order to spur ticket and merchandise sales, not just among hardcore fans and event viewers, but among new generations of people who have watched and perhaps played the sport at school and university.
That’s something that the likes of the BBC and Sky Sports can be massive drivers behind through both their live coverage and highlights shows, which are becoming more and more extensive year on year. It helps that American football, with its ebbs and flows and relatively short passages of play, is perfectly suited to highlights – especially for fans new to the game. In that sense the increasing focus on highlight videos on the BBC website as well as the two weekly NFL television programmes, is a natural fit for the sport.
Media have done well so far to produce guides to terminology, tactics and scoring, as well as creating narratives around players and teams where possible to combat these challenges. Take Philadelphia Eagles’ running back Jay Ajayi’s Superbowl victory earlier this year, combined with him scoring the first touchdowns of the new NFL season this year for example, which has offered an attractive talking point for the NFL in the UK.
There is clearly still work to be done, but if the NFL can continue to tap into the desire to watch live sport for the in-stadium experience, rather than just the on-pitch action, the demand will only increase.