On the heels of successful fan events in London and sell-out crowds at Wembley Stadium, Anoop Sahgal, executive marketing, Adobe, caught up with Alistair Kirkwood, managing director at the London office for the NFL. Among the topics they discussed: the league’s success in rekindling Europe’s fascination with American football, its strategies for engaging international audiences, and the NFL’s global fandom.
On. . .a new-world sport coming (back) across the pond.
Kirkwood: Americans are brought up with football and watching the National Football League—most everyone has their favorite team, they know who the key players are from either watching games or from television commercials, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who didn’t know what the NFL is. Undoubtedly in the U.S., the NFL is a premier sports league.
In my position heading up the London office, and for my counterparts in China, Mexico, and Canada, our goal is to build the foundation for a sustainable business for the league beyond the American market that will eventually reach saturation. In the long term, seeding these new markets is important to that success.
On. . .why the U.K.?
Kirkwood: The U.K. is critical to the NFL’s success for several reasons. Outside of the U.S., it is the second largest sports market in the world and has a lot of purchasing power compared to other countries. Secondly, the U.K. has a similar language to the U.S., so it feels more familiar to its audiences and would be an easier transition for many viewers.
In addition, the sport of [American] football already has history here. In the 1980s, the league experienced a period of success with regular-season and exhibition games played live at Wembley Stadium and games televised within the market. These factors have added to the current levels of familiarity with the sport and have given us the confidence that American football can and will appeal to sports fans here.
On. . .competing with (European) football and other sports.
Kirkwood: The key for us is to try not to compete. We’re positioning ourselves as additive to the market, not an alternative.
Looking at how sports fans behave within the market, it’s common for them to follow multiple sports with the same passion. Where our advantage comes in is that we play at a different time compared to other indigenous sports, so you can catch an NFL game and a Premier League match with little to no competition during time slots.
At the same time as being a major benefit, a large, dynamic sports market like ours can pose specific challenges—such as trying to be additive within the market, while still differentiating us.
On. . .engaging the market.
Kirkwood: We’ve had to focus on making sure that we have regular season games that really matter and have real impact on the season so that we are raising the level of engagement of the fans. We have to put a premium product in front of fans, get premium TV placement for the product—including time on Channel 4 and on the BBC—and leverage the Internet and all online channels to make the sport more available for viewers.
For example, we run about 60 NFL games a season on Sky Sports, with all other games being shown on Game Pass. This makes it easy for fans to follow any team or match not shown on television broadcasts. In doing this, we can give the same access to international fans as what an American fan might have—and, in some instances, even better experiences—to socialize the sport within the new market, and fans continue to ask for more.
New media as a tool to remove barriers and misconceptions.
On. . .a new game with “new” rules.
Kirkwood: Another one of our biggest efforts has been removing barriers and misconceptions around our sport. People in the U.K. haven’t grown up watching or playing the game and might think it to be too complicated to follow.
We’re positioning the fact that followers can say, "I’m an NFL fan," as if it is a badge of honor. If you can make that statement, it’s shown that you’ve taken the time and effort to break down the sport and follow it.
A major tool that we’ve used to help eliminate those obstacles has been our NFLUK.com Web site so that fans can follow the sport, interact with the NFL brand, and have a forum for similar-minded fans to discuss games. The Web site goes beyond e-commerce—selling apparel and tickets—and gives fans in the U.K. a voice.
Similarly, we’ve developed a new Web site called NFL-360.com, where fans can learn about the sport, its history, and the teams that play. If fans want to pick their favorite team, they can go there and learn about all of the teams, rivals, players, historic greats, and even famous fans. Additionally, we provide insider information—such as how players memorize playbooks—to give the game even greater depth than what might be shown on television broadcasts and cultivate a passion for the sport.
More so, we know that American football is a sport of nuances that might seem tedious to uninformed viewers—for example, watching rushing plays where runs may only be for a few yards at a time and only a few seconds run off the game clock. In contrast, European football matches have a continuous game clock where footballers are constantly in motion. The online resources that we offer help to raise awareness of these nuances—such as field position, clock management, situational strategies, and more—that help enhance a fan’s appreciation for the game.
On. . .the critical role of social media.
Kirkwood: There is a lot of talk going on, some being started by us through Facebook and Twitter, but it’s mostly driven by the fans in Europe. We also work with friends of the league, such as the BBC Sports Web site, to place videos and start conversations that have helped greatly in raising awareness.
One of the most interesting things about those relationships is that once we get the conversation started, we don’t have to work to engage those channels. We can stand at a distance and watch how the power of social media steers interactions. The true fans of the sport influence those conversations and reach out to friends and family to build the fan base.
By adopting strategies where we initiate a conversation and then stay hands-off, we’ve seen amazing results. For example, our partnership with BBC Sports where we provide Tuesday and Wednesday content has yielded some of the most-watched online videos in the U.K. Additionally, we’ve seen fan-generated pages dedicated to their favorite teams sprout up across the Internet and significant growth in conversations around the sport occurring on Facebook and Twitter.
On. . .an end goal.
Kirkwood: Goals for the NFL in the U.K. should be loosely defined at this point, but I think that it is important for us to keep looking forward. We’re currently driving to continue to build the fan base up to the extent where we could have an NFL team based here that could play teams from the U.S.
In the meanwhile, we’ll be bringing even more NFL action to Europe. During the 2013 season, for the first time ever we’ll have two regular-season games played in the U.K., with the Pittsburg Steelers playing the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 27 and the San Francisco 49ers versus the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 29—the buzz is already starting to build.