NFL plots Germany, Brazil and Asia games to fuel expansion

The National Football League (NFL) is to extend its international games beyond the UK to Germany, Asia and Latin America in the coming years and with it step up marketing and commercial investment to fuel its growth outside its US home. However, the domestic violence allegations currently hurting the brand stateside will create an additional challenge overseas that it needs to counter, the sporting body admits. 

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Hudson joins the NFL at a time when sponsors and fans are concerned it does not take domestic abuse seriously.

NFL chiefs view the expansion of live games as a key route to reaching $25bn (£15bn) revenue by 2027. With revenue reportedly $9.5bn (£5.8bn) in 2012, the lofty goal means the league must average more than $1bn (£613m) annually over the next 12 years.

Plans will be mapped out over the next four months ahead of announcements after the season ends next March. Although the London games themselves are the tentpole event for selling the product abroad, organisers are to focus on fan engagement rather than hosting more games next year.

The NFL believes the series has become a “standout” event on the sporting calendar in the UK, gaining particular traction with fans it describes as “young, affluent and globally-minded”. It is this popularity that has helped woo domestic partners such as New Era and Aon and there are further deals to be announced in the coming weeks.

Mark Reeves, international commercial director for the NFL, told Marketing Week: “We’re going to be looking at other markets [next year]. Germany will be one of them because there’s a strong fan base. There’s also more we can do in Brazil where it’s a growing market for sport in general as well as having the advantage of being essentially in the same time zone as the US for live games. We’re focusing on [five] markets where we have offices – Canada, China, Japan, Mexico and the UK.”

Longtime observers worry the latest push to build the sport outside America risks compounding a 35-year charge that has had limited success to date. The NFL does not disclose financial details, including international revenues, but has previously admitted it may take up to 20 years to build a mass fan base around recent investments.

Jon Stainer managing director of Repucom UK and Ireland, says: “The NFL has been trying to grow the sport internationally, to some extent, since the 1980s. However, the more recent drive in developing popularity is seeming to work. In the UK there are a lot of well-established and well followed sports, making it especially hard for niche sports in the market to cut through. However, the NFL movement seems to be making some ground.

“From a commercial point of view, to continue to grow the brand in the UK it is important to engage local sponsors, national brands that are relevant to the UK audience. Local teams and leagues are also vital in making the sport more relevant, but to sustain it, the sport must grow from within and from a participatory base”.

A new five-year deal with Sky will be key to those efforts in the UK. Unlike previous ventures with the broadcaster, the league has persuaded it to promote over 80 live fixtures in the same way it does for other top sporting properties such as the Premier League. Investments are also underway to grow the brand’s own media platforms including the Netflix-style NFL Now service.

Reeves adds there’s a “scale and stature” building around the league internationally that has made it a more attractive to both brands and fans. But the domestic violence scandal that has rocked the NFL in the US could stunt fan growth overseas. Fans, sponsors and women’s advocacy groups have accused NFL bosses of being too lenient in its initial reaction to a domestic violence incident involving Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice and his wife.

“We’re in the process of measuring the fallout [on the UK brand] of the incident and will not know anything immediately. It’s a negative issue for us and it’s our job to make sure we rectify it quickly and accordingly. It has not impacted the relationships with any of our sponsors in the UK”, said Reeves.

In the last month there have been nearly 6,500 mentions of the NFL online in the UK with 91 per cent coming from Twitter, according to social media monitors Brandwatch. Of those mentions, 8 per cent were direct emotional responses to the domestic abuse scandal with the negative posts (400) outweighing the positive (200).

Stateside, perceptions of the league appear to be on the rise following a dip in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, according to YouGov’s BrandIndex. Women rather than men have driven the upturn with league’s Reputation scoring -9 for the former compared to -30 for the latter. The NFL has hired four senior female executives including former PepsiCo marketer Dawn Hudson as its first chief marketing officer.

As the NFL embarks on its first three-game international series at Wembley Stadium this weekend (28 September), it is clear more of a presence is needed in other markets if the league wants to fulfill its ambitious long-term revenue target.

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