Manufacturing passion: How can the NFL convince UK fans to get behind a London team?

With so many sports teams in London already, do sports fans have the emotional capacity to get behind a London-based team

How do you convince fans to support a London-based NFL team in a city crowded with sports brands? That’s the question set to shape the next decade of the sport outside its heartland.

While the NFL brand couldn’t be more popular right now – half of the 80,000 fans who went to a game at Wembley last year had been to a previous football game – the international matches have been running for 10 years and with that comes a commercial plateau, one that could be smashed were the sport to set up permanently in London.

“I’m trying to create a sustainable fanbase here if an owner decides to bring a team over,” says Sarah Swanson, chief marketing officer for the NFL UK. “There’s no question that bringing a team over would incrementally increase the fanbase here with a great degree of ease.”

Her confidence traces back to the sport’s bosses, who have made global expansion among their top priorities as viewing figures in the US stutter.

Recent developments such as owners voting to allow multiple teams to relocate to LA and stadium issues in Oakland and San Diego have dominated the news as of late, seemingly leaving the plans for a London team on the backburner. This is far from the case though and according to CBC Sports, senior figures of the game were recently privy to a robust presentation of the NFL’s plan to date which revealed just how advanced discussions were.

The inevitability becomes apparent in light of the fact that league bosses are already addressing the challenges of when a London team inevitably reaches the playoffs and faces a team from the West Coast.

While her colleagues across the Atlantic analyse the logistical hurdles, Swanson is focused squarely on how to continue to grow a sport that already packs out stadiums and sees tickets to matches sell out in minutes. Similar to the sport’s domestic efforts, the issue in the UK is how to reach other sports fans, using a blend of influencers, content marketing and eSports.

"We’re trying to create content and take it to channels where people are already consuming rather than expecting a new fan to come to our channels," says Swanson. "The crossover with football has allowed us to capitalise on something people already care about. It’s been broader than that too with YouTube influencers, rugby players and even cricketers."

These strategies are designed to build a permanent fanbase in the UK, one that looks to solidify given the addition of a fourth game to next season's schedule and the nicely packaged highlights show on the BBC, helping it reach the widest possible audience.

And there lies the rub: reaching this broader audience in a way that drives passion and loyalty is tricky when there are so many established sports. London already has 13 professional football teams though so the question of whether there is room for another major sport franchise seems legitimate.

"It’s a massive sports market but I don’t think it’s saturated," says Swanson. "I’ve never seen anything like the way we sell tickets in this market, it’s extraordinary."

The appetite from audiences is evidently there so league bosses must ensure that those fans place their loyalties in a London team as opposed to supporting one of the already established teams.

John Scurfield, head of UK sport and entertainment at MediaCom, believes that this could be an issue and the league will need to be strategic in order to overcome it.

Scurfield points out: "Whilst I’m sure the London-based franchise will be many a UK fan's second team, in order to grow a loyal supporter base as their first team they will need to attract the right players and have a positive impact on the community through a community and schools programme."

You only need to look at the history and ongoing discussions of moving teams to new cities in the US to see that the NFL has experience in marketing its franchises in new territories.

Jamie Wynne-Morgan, managing director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, has every faith that the NFL is capable of doing just that in London.

"As an organisation the NFL is well versed in creating a fanbase from scratch due to the franchise nature of the sport," says Wynne-Morgan.

A number of factors are needed in order to achieve this including having home grown talent in the team, working closely with broadcast partners such as Sky Sports and choosing the right sponsors.

"You only need to look at the impact O2 has had with rugby over the past 20 odd years to see how working well with a sponsor can pay dividends for a sport and team," added Wynne-Morgan.

While the formula can be drawn up, its application in a city like London, which has a plethora of passionately supported sports teams already, will prove to be a truly unique undertaking.

"Oversupply is the big issue in sport," says Adrian Pettett, chief executive of HSE Cake.

"Marketing is about creating demand and scarcity, but the pressure to sell – more tickets, sponsorships, media rights – means that sports bodies often default to creating more – leagues, teams, franchises, events.

"This is the basic tension at the heart of sport’s globalisation trend, which comes with an assumption that sports fans have the emotional capacity to care for a new team."

The London equation is the ultimate test for the NFL, but its scale and marketing clout make it the right sports property for the challenge and others from around the world will be looking on closely, for if the league can't build an fanbase overseas then what hope is there for those commercial bosses for sports under pressure to grow?

Sarah Swanson has been announced as one of the judges for The Drum's 2017 Marketing Awards and the entries are now open.

Tony Connelly

I cover media, marketing and sponsorship news within the sports industry. This includes breaking news as well as writing feature pieces with insights from experts in the sports marketing world.

All by Tony