While the NFL faces challenges to its US dominance, its brand-building efforts in the UK (its third-largest market) are delivering record TV audiences, ticket sales, and sponsorship revenue. Now, the NFL aims to convert casual followers into passionate fans of teams such as Super Bowl winners the Philadelphia Eagles, who invested significant marketing dollar during the London Games in October.
Sarah Swanson, NFL UK’s head of marketing since 2015, has been tasked with growing the sport and extending fan engagement beyond the London Games and the Super Bowl. Her mission is to entice fans to watch the Super Bowl playoffs, rather than having fans tuning in only for the big game. This epitomises a strategy to deepen its connection all year round.
Earlier this year, Swanson told The Drum that its two BBC shows, particularly The NFL Show that airs just after the Match of the Day on Saturday, was “the biggest asset we have in this market.” With Sky also airing 100 live NFL games in 2017, the sport boasted 25 million unique UK TV viewers, up 40% increase year-on-year. This figure, Swanson noted, is higher in 2018.
Swanson said: "The strategy is to pull the Super Bowl hype forward and bring fans into the playoffs.”
A big part of this is helping individual franchises form their own fan acquisition strategies.
“In the UK, we have fans of the NFL, in the US we have fans of teams," Swanson said. "You tend to be born into that and it is part of your life and your culture but we do know that when someone chooses a team, they remain connected to the sport for longer throughout the season, rather than a general NFL fan.
“So for us, team growth is so important and to have a club like the Eagles, who are hugely invested in growing their fan base here, it is a great opportunity.”
With the Eagles especially, there was a perfect storm. Never before had a reigning Super Bowl champion team played in the UK. Never before had a visiting team had a UK player either, especially one of the renown of Hackney-born Jay Ajayi. Missing the game due to an operation, Ayayi (pictured below) took the trip across the Atlantic to help cultivate his fan base.
The NFL London Games have accumulated average attendances of 80,000 over the past 11 seasons. In 2018, it sold a record 47,000 season tickets for three games in October: Seattle Seahawks vs Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans vs LA Chargers, and Philadelphia Eagles vs Jacksonville Jaguars.
The unprecedented interest in the London Games also enriched the NFL fan database, swelling it from 35,000 to 450,000 addresses. The 2018 fixtures would have driven this higher.
Swanson noted the Eagles' marketing efforts, outlining that team investment helps build out the NFL marketing machine from what is primarily a reliance on earned media and PR.
She said: “They did really fun, locally relevant things that we haven't seen before. They didn't come to market the way they do in Philadelphia, they were fun, tailored and respectful. We worked with them on that. I was great to have a team put that kind of time and resource against this market.”
Jennifer Kavanagh, senior vice president of marketing and media at Philadelphia Eagles, outlined that there is a real opportunity for growth in the UK. A significant marketing spend encompassing digital, live activations, social, and out-of-home was aligned to “not just connect with traveling Eagles fans, but hopefully spark new fans.”
Coming to market after winning the Super Bowl certainly served as a point of differentiation against the other teams. “The spotlight got bigger and brighter,” Kavanagh said.
“We are a brand that likes to tell stories, so we have a lot of original content that we create specifically created to help people get to know the team, as well as the individual players, on and off the field.”
For Brits, the team conceived a digital tabloid called the Regal Eagle, to inform of the team’s background and exploits. The point was to stand out from generic football news by using humour and going “slightly outside the box... as comedy is a great way to connect and build relationships with people.”
Digital billboards reimagined distinctive parts of London’s identity, chiefly bangers and mash, royal guards, and the 'mind the gap' announcement.
“We're not just asking people to choose an NFL team, we are asking them to connect with a brand that they identify with," Kavanagh said. "It is easy to understand why we are great as a football team, but this was an opportunity to showcase our personality and spark a connection.”
This fan connection has to be strong to account for the time zone difference between the UK and the US — being an NFL fan in the UK often results in a nocturnal viewing habit. Kavanagh shrugged the concern off.
“When you are a fan and are hungry to watch a game, you will. European soccer fans have shown us that stateside. We will never change time zones, but the more the fandom deepens, the more excited people get and start connecting with teams. We make sacrifices for sport, that is what is so great about our fans in general, so I expect they will continue as long as they have to.”
The club now struggles to win over new fans in the states; half of its 7m fans reside in the Philly area. The teams have broken up the US into fiefdoms that has increased the emphasis of securing international followings.
One of the ways to swell international appreciation of the sport was the relaunch of NFL’s over-the-top TV streaming product GamePass.
NFL's Swanson, as part of her remit of extending engagement around the sport, is running a “strong special” discount of £2.99 for the service around Thanksgiving.
This pivotal US holiday has been deeply integrated with the sport since 1978 when the first holiday fixtures occurred. It is an event the league could go bigger on in the UK in the coming years. For now, Swanson is leaning on press and content and influencer marketing, including a segment on BBC’s The NFL Show, to get the word out.
Beyond that, live events factor into building out the fan bases, Swanson and Kavanagh agree.
The NFL’s Regent Street takeover attracted 600k people to the closed-off street. On-stage entertainment, NFL cheerleaders and mascots, pop-ups, kids zones, and merchandise all bulked out the experience.
What set it apart from previous years was that instead of hosting it around the London Games, it was shuffled one month earlier to 8 September to help drive awareness of the events earlier and aid marketing and sales efforts.
Swanson said: “Our intent was to get press coverage and fan engagement, and to drive the fact that the TV show and season was starting, GamePass was available, and our fantasy football was open.
“From a PR perspective, we got a burst of coverage from the start of the season. That strategy to extend the season from kickoff to Super Bowl was different this year; it helped us a lot from a brand awareness standpoint.”
Such efforts help drive commercial growth, she revealed, without detailing the financials that the UK operation has hit a record sponsorship income — chiefly with it being two years into a three year deal with Subway. In particular, she pointed to the fact both brands are pursuing UK growth as an objective alignment that has benefited both.
In many respects, the NFL's efforts to build internationally contrasts with Major League Soccer's (MLS) effort to make the US fall in love with the world's most widely played game.
Gary Stevenson, president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures cited inclusivity, ease to pick up and play, and shorter run-times as perks that will aid the sport's growth in the US.