Managing Director, NFL UK
What prompted NFL to look towards transatlantic expansion?
It is important to look at our expansion process from a US perspective. NFL is the predominant sports league, and has been for the last 2 to 3 decades. It has also enjoyed substantial growth from a media and cultural perspective as well. But, when the saturation point in the market is hit, the league, as it has always done and done well, challenged itself and sought another opportunity to improve.
Looking to a generation’s time, things are changing, and standing still means that NFL would run the risk of falling behind. When ownership agreed to play in London in 2007, it was really an exercise for us to dip our toes in the water, so to speak. But, we needed to do so without jeopardizing the success of the league as a whole. And in short, our expansion was prompted simply because we had to.
What were the toughest challenges breaking into the UK?
The UK is the 2nd largest sports market in the world making it incredibly competitive. Entering the market needed to be done with credibility and legitimacy, with an emphasis on showing our willingness to invest in the market. The other competitive challenges also came in the form of fighting for the leisure time of our fan base with other sports and entertainment.
The other question that was important for us to both ask and answer was, ‘Why London?’ First, the UK shares similar language and cultural value systems. It made sense for NFL to break in an environment with similar qualities. Second, being that the UK is the second largest sports and entertainment market in the world, London is really the gateway to other countries. Attendance at our games in the UK is supplemented by fans from mainland Europe – our crowds are 94% from the UK. And, lastly, our ownership has business interests in the UK, and already has the knowledge and awareness of the market.
With a ‘hard-Brexit’ as a real possibility, what challenges do you anticipate should one occur?
As I’m sure everyone is well aware, businesses, NFL included, cannot be entirely sure of the challenges or opportunities a ‘hard-Brexit’ would generate. We don’t really know how it would manifest itself. However, the fact that NFL can maintain its presence on the main world stage, along with our regular season, in a world where government officials are looking beyond borders, allows us to assist in continuing to put London and the UK on a recognizable platform.
In addition to London, NFL announced plans to expand into China in a few years. What are the plans for looking East?
Essentially, the main reason stems from the size of the market. There is certainly something attractive about pioneering work for such a scale. And, the world will keep changing and evolving. Our first game of this season in the UK saw Chinese activation at the half-time show that was consequently streamed back to our fan base in China. I would have never thought to do something like that, and it only goes to show that the world is getting smaller. Looking abroad, just like looking towards transatlantic expansion, is the next logical step.
One of the largest concerns for companies looking to expand globally is talent. How do you find the right people to promote NFL’s vision?
I’ve felt that the direction for our initiatives was rooted in the proper balance and chemistry that any team ought to have. Also, within our office, we have 4 individuals who are American nationals who have a deep understanding of the league’s environment in the US. Actually, it’s rather attractive to have individuals who don’t know much about NFL or the sport because it offers a chance to expand the lens of the organization both internally and externally. From a Public Relations and Marketing perspective, the individuals on our team with familiarity with NFL are able to communicate our message in a positive way that resonates with our audience, as they themselves are representatives of our fan base.
What is it like to have made history at Twickenham Stadium?
It was lots of fun! October 17 was the 16th regular season game, and 75%, 23/32, teams have already made their way to the UK to scrimmage. A new stadium added complexity and challenge in that it is a different arena entirely from Wembley, but we managed to see the 74,000 seats sell out which was quite a thrill. In fact, it’s quite ironic – given that football has roots in rugby, it was as if we were going back to our spiritual home.
What is next for NFL?
What is really intriguing about what we are doing is that we are working with something that has never been done before. The potential is truly groundbreaking, having crossed the Atlantic in a unique way.
We are finding that our fan base in the UK is younger with the average age of 27, unlike 45 in the US, and our work is primarily being focused around being digitally savvy. On television, for instance, NFL is featured in 103 live games on SKY, as well as 2 weekly highlight shows on BBC where we have a substantial presence. The other aspect, of course, is social media, which we find accounts for the change in consumption habits to more of a family-wide audience as opposed to individual fans of the league. Loyalty in the UK runs deeply in that our fan base really are more fans of the NFL than they are of individual players or teams, and for various reasons. We don’t know where we are necessarily headed, but we will have fun getting there.