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NFL UK: 'the BBC is the biggest asset we have in this market'

The BBC is vital to the NFL's British brand building efforts, the sport's ‎head of marketing UK has told The Drum.

Sarah Swanson, who has been with the NFL for more than half a decade and headed up UK marketing since 2015, has helped drive the brand towards mainstream appeal.

The BBC brought the NFL to free-to-air British TV in 2016, with Mark Chapman hosting a weekly digest package occupying the vital post-Match of the Day slot on a Saturday. While educating a wider audience on the nuances of the sport, the show avoids digging too deeply into the tactical situations like commentators are prone to stateside.

Its sister show, NFL This Week, airs late on Tuesdays.

“The biggest asset we have in this market is the late night show on the BBC," said Swanson. "When you look at the number of people who see it – you can’t touch that anywhere else. It is very much designed for a broad audience. We contextualize what is happening on the field, who the players are and their storylines to a broad audience.”

She touted the benefit of being on BBC's linear schedule, the iPlayer and the BBC Sport homepage as a result of the show and its coverage. Swanson added: "We want to be mainstream [and] this is a great way to be mainstream.”

Beyond the BBC

Meanwhile, Sky broadcasts matches to smaller, more fanatic audiences numbering in the tens of thousands. There's also its direct to consumer strategy; the NFL sells its feeds, additional shows and data straight to consumers through its globally available Game Pass service that is priced at £84.99 a year in the UK for the basic package.

Through the mainstream media channels, the NFL claims to have secured some 24 million unique UK broadcast viewers last season.

The NFL's outreach methods are similar to those of Eurosport's chief executive – soon to be Facebook head of sports – Peter Hutton.

"We can’t rely on traditional news media to connect with everyone," he said. "They might not be pay TV audiences, [but] if we can reach these audiences, we should."

As a result, the NFL went down the social and influencer channels to ensnare new fans – an audience that likely isn't hanging around to watch that highlights slot after Match of the Day.

Influencers are therefore one of the best ways to grow the sport, according to Swanson.

“It is hard to get people to change their behaviour and seek out something new," she said. "It is always going to be a bit tough if they don’t have a reason to care. Influencers let us put the NFL in front of people where they are consuming content.”

Furthermore, Swanson does not believe in overly distinguishing between lifestyle vloggers or sports accounts like the SportBible, as each has its own unique audience and reach.

The Super Bowl

NFL UK can traditionally be relied upon to generate a buzz for the big game. The issue is that once that momentum is created for one game, then the season is over.

"Super Bowl is a really big deal, it is more known that the NFL and it is a highpoint of the season," Swanson said.

"The challenge is the day after the season is over, we are in the dark for a number of months. So in the last year or two we have tried to pull forward from the Super Bowl, and get fans watching the January playoffs instead of a one-off."

In 2017, two games were staged at Wembley and two at Twickenham Stadium. Some 300,000 fans attended these four London games. This year, there will be one game at Tottenham and two at Wembley.

From a marketing perspective, some favourable conditions were met on the field that enabled the brand to tell some strong stories. The four teams that won their London fixtures in 2017 made it to the playoffs, giving event attendees a team to root for.

A big part of the story was Hackney-born Jay Ajayi who is hoping to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to glory against the power of the New England Patriots when they collide at the Super Bowl in Minnesota. If he succeeds he will be only the fifth British player to lift the award.

"Jay has been such a big part of giving people a reason to care, to engage," said Swanson. "It's amazing having someone British born, with most of his family over here and watching him grow, playing in the Super Bowl.

"We unashamedly promote Jay over here."

Swanson said Ajayi wants to become an inspiration to young kids and help cultivate the game in the UK.

"He wants them to see him and see that that is possible," she said. "He is such a nice asset for us."

All this activity paves the way for a franchise putting down roots in the UK, now the fandom is proven to exist. Swanson asserted that NFL UK will continue to do what it is doing, regardless of whether a UK team emerges.