The New York Jets’ victory over the Miami Dolphins at Wembley earlier this month was the 12th time that England’s biggest sports stadium has hosted an American football match since 2007. Interest in America’s National Football League (NFL) has steadily grown in the UK during that period and this year, through a series of brand partnerships and marketing activations, the NFL is making a big statement about its plans for further expansion in this country.
This includes a new two-year rights deal with the BBC that allows the broadcaster to show this year’s Wembley games live, either via BBC Two or the BBC Red Button. In addition to the Jets vs Dolphins game, Wembley will host two more matches on 25 October and 1 November.
The tie-up with the BBC includes a new NFL highlights programme that will run from next month until the Super Bowl in February and more American football content for the BBC Sport website and app. This marks a significant extension to the coverage of the NFL available on free-to-air TV, with the vast majority of games previously being accessible only to Sky Sports subscribers.
In July, meanwhile, the NFL agreed a 10-year deal to host at least two games a year at the new stadium of Premier League football club Tottenham Hotspur. The stadium, which is due to open in 2018, will incorporate a retractable grass pitch with an artificial surface underneath for NFL matches. The NFL has indicated that it also wants to continue playing matches at Wembley once the partnership with Tottenham gets underway.
The deal edges the NFL closer to the long-speculated possibility of setting up a competitive team based permanently in London to take advantage of the sport’s growing traction in the UK. Sarah Swanson, head of marketing at NFL UK, tells Marketing Week that this remains under consideration, but explains that for now the league is focused on refining its marketing to appeal to an expanding base of British fans.
How are you engaging UK fans around the NFL games taking place at Wembley this autumn?
Sarah Swanson: During the off-season we thought a lot about how we could move the NFL from just being three moments in time in London to being part of the conversation [in the UK] throughout the season. We want to have millions of super-avid fans who are consuming the NFL in every possible way, whether that’s going to games, watching us on television, going to the website or buying merchandise.
To do that you have got to open up the funnel to the largest number of people possible through partnerships, content and, of course, events around the games. From a new fan perspective, the deal with the BBC is the most important thing to have come out of the off season. It’s a huge opportunity to get the sport in front of as many potential new fans as possible.
How does digital content help you to grow the UK fan base?
Sarah Swanson: Obviously, a big part of the BBC deal is the television side, but much of the value of that deal is also in the American football page on the BBC Sport website. The numbers that they draw [to the site] are just extraordinary, so one of the first things I did after we agreed the deal was talk to the BBC about the type of content that the NFL already produces in the US which we can give them, and what we can do that’s custom and broader-base, rather than a specific analysis that might not work for a fan going to bbc.co.uk. The clips and highlights packages that we have had on the site since the start of the season have been some of the most viewed clips consistently every week.
We have also created animated videos that explain the basics of the sport in a fun way. At the start of the season we pitched them to some of our avid fans in the UK and said ‘if you have a friend who’s new to the sport, show them this’. That content has been really successful for us and we’ve had quite a lot of views on it, so we’re thinking about translating it into other languages and using it in other parts of the world.
What does the new partnership with Tottenham Hotspur mean for the NFL in the UK?
Sarah Swanson: The main thing is that it shows we are committed to being here. The commitment of the NFL to that kind of deal and the work that’s going into building that stadium together with Spurs should show fans in the UK, partners and everyone else that we intend to be here for a long time.
The second thing is that it gives us a little bit of an ‘in’ with another sport. We will try to find crossover content opportunities and get in front of Spurs fans and help them know and love the NFL. The club has a huge NFL fan on their team in [striker] Harry Kane, who is a big Patriots fan, so if we are able to build some of that storytelling and do content around things like that, there’s lots of potential new opportunities.
Has the deal made the establishment of a permanent NFL franchise in the UK more likely?
Sarah Swanson: We are doing everything we can to be in a position to make the most informed decision of whether that’s the right thing to do. There is so much that goes into it – the stadium is one piece – and I know that we’re committed to making sure that we have asked and tested everything we can so that we make the right decision about that.
What other partnerships have you forged with brands in the UK?
Sarah Swanson: Our new partnership with [burger chain] Five Guys is a big deal for us that illustrates what I was saying about being outside of the three games, and being very broad and in front of people that probably don’t know the NFL. We have paired each of Five Guys’ 32 locations in the UK with one of the NFL’s 32 teams. Each restaurant features a locker-style installation with helmets, jerseys and cups and napkins that provide information about the team.
We are also doing a promotion in 100 bars across the UK with our partner Budweiser. If you check into one of the bars via the MatchPint app, you get two-for-one Buds while watching the NFL. We’re very keen to create relevance for a new or casual fan in the UK by finding points of engagement.