As an outpost of the NFL, the UK is extremely fortunate to be in the glare of the NFL’s plans for expansion. Fans in this country are now able to attend four (and increasing) regular season games, to increasing coverage of the sport via domestic TV (BBC), pay TV (Sky) and apps (GamePass). This is all fantastic for fans who have lovingly devoted their lives to a game played at a time that requires commitment to things such as caffeine, sleep deprivation, takeaway food, groggy mornings and the bemusement and often berating from friends and family! But an outpost we are. Rightly so. The NFL is truly a sport born of the USA. It’s something the USA specialises in having grown and exported their sports rather than importing them (for the most part and in relation to major sports – we aren’t here to debate MLS or the spread of basketball across the world).
The reality of being an NFL fan in the UK requires devotion. In days gone by it was listening to the broadcasts from military radio for the overseas forces of the US army based in Germany. You can read about that from Jonno Payton HERE. There is no need to document again the ways in which fans had to hear about results but it is clear to see that the trajectory from this level of devotion would obviously find a home in the All-22 of NFL GamePass. For the institutional body that governs, operates and markets the game having this entrenched cadre of committed fandom is a fantastic platform from which to expand. The NFL has certainly done that.
NFL UK states that its mission “includes building the NFL’s fanbase, creating local broadcast and sponsorship deals and developing important relationships within the sporting, governmental and commercial communities”. And they have achieved parts of this well, emphasis on parts.
The catering to existing fans has been, on the whole, really positive – the Regent Street events, the tours of UK with Neil Reynolds and guests, the pre-game tailgate, all seem to be really well attended and well received (outside of minor gripes about tailgating but, let’s face it, with no tradition of this in the UK and space at stadiums not necessarily built to accommodate this, it’s always going to be a bit of a poor cousin to the all-out excess of the experience at NFL stadiums). The games themselves have been fabulously attended from across the UK and Europe (as well as fans from the US and elsewhere) with the atmosphere probably as close a facsimile as is possible to achieve – the stadium using the 3rd down hype videos, the t-shirt cannons, the half-time entertainment and everything else all make the games a spectacle, which is what they should be. It’s an exhibition of the sport for fans over here which has been fabulous. One of the highlights of the seven or so games I’ve been to was the Ohio State Marching Band at Wembley. Those cats can play.
So what’s the gripe? Essentially, the NFLUK marketing ploy for the Overseas Sports Personality of the Year award has rubbed fans the wrong way, a lot of them and myself very much included. I refereed to fans as being ‘browbeaten’ by the NFLUK marketing strategy in a Twitter exchange with former NFLUK bod and current NFL VP, Henry Hodgson. He disagreed with my blithe assessment to which I disagreed with his response. All very respectful but it did seem that there was a lack of realisation that many fans aren’t fans of the NFL to ‘further the sport’ in the UK, rather they are fans of team, they are partisan and probably care not one jot if NFLUK annual turnover increases, if media penetration increases or if the number of ‘new fans’ promotes the idea of a London franchise. The latter issue splits fans of the game in the UK right down the middle. Many don’t want it, many do.
Now, the reason that the OSPOTY vote badgering has annoyed many is that it is blunt-force marketing. It is treating dedicated fans as a commodity to feather the bed of the corporate entity of the NFL, not the game itself. Leave aside that Tom Brady is a divisive figure for many fans. To be clear, though I am 1,000% team PM18 always, the dislike of Tom is little to do with his ability or the fact that he is without question one of the greatest QBs to ever play the game, it is to do with that thing that all tribal and passionate fans don’t like – the team that always wins, the coach that stands above, the QB that married a super model and also has a $200 cookbook and is 40 and looks like he could still play a teenage love interest in Dawson’s Creek (that’s the most up-to-date teen angst drama, right?) – so appealing to the ‘greater good’ is hardly the most sensible way to go about it. It is also not the brightest idea to barrage the same message over and over through your social media channels, nor to enlist professional athletes to tweet promotional messages that are all obviously pre-arranged.
Why? Because it shows no respect for fans, for the intellect of the individuals you believe you are ‘influencing’ (word in inverted commas because I mean it in the current, social media trendsetter term), and it shows a lack of nuance and insight.
Such a direct and repetitive campaign would be understandable from an organisation lacking in resource and without much in the way of marketing expertise. That’s not the NFL, and if it is NFLUK, they need to either change their marketing consultants or lean harder on HQ in the US.
More so, and a final part on the OSPOTY. I found it intriguing that part of the argument presented for all NFL fans in the UK to vote for Tom Brady as OSPOTY was that it would help prove to the BBC that support for the sport in the UK was legitimate.
Ok…But why would NLFUK be trying to court a domestic TV provider at the time that the consumption of the product is moving wholly online? Why would you value a BBC highlights/review show shown at midnight on a Saturday over the app that gives fans unfettered access to the entirety of the product? Indeed, if BBC is the way forward, is that why the core product for your core constituents was outsourced and indeed, outsourced in a manner that speaks to highly negligent due diligence when reviewing suppliers which point to lax or non-existent procurement processes?
Why would you concentrate your efforts on frippery – a review show on a TV channel that itself is facing huge challenges and may fundamentally change in the years to come?
Why neglect the future AND your present for the HOPE of something that is quite simply time limited and stunted in its ability to penetrate new markets, new consumers and, dare I use this term, help attract new FANS…
Anyway this example is part of a worrying lack of thought when it comes to marketing the NFL in the UK. The carousel of ex- and current professional footballers, predominantly with some other sports stars represented, wheeled out to say they are now fans of team X (or in the case of one former England and Man U Centre Back, to flip one season to the next as whoever first set them up with a team forgot to make a note of it), or to receive a free gift and state how enthused they are for the game, all speak to a bygone era of marketing.
In a time of increased scepticism, of mistrust and doubt, believing that even the most naïve of social media users can’t see through a pre-paid agreement, a copy and paste tweet, someone who clearly has no interest in the sport feigning an interest, believing that these tactics are for ‘the good of the game’ or help to ‘grow the game’ are misguided at best and deluded at worst.
How do NFLUK thus grow the fanbase, I hear you say. It’s not easy, it requires long-term planning and an emphasis on the start of the supply chain, not the finished product.
School outreach and investment in local and grassroots participation in the sport is crucial in capturing the imagination and loyalty of potential fans. That, alongside understanding what attracts fans to the game, not trying to convert people who already have preconceptions about the sport. Is that the glitzy headline? No, but the glitzy headline of interviewing a raft of sporting personalities pitch-side isn’t winning new fans, football players tweeting boxes with a jersey in it isn’t winning new fans. Indeed, though there is a growing following of the game in the UK, the idea that you can have a sustainable pipeline of committed fans, a generational hand-off from parent to child, without any exposure to playing the game will always be limited.
So the winning for the NFL and NFLUK will be in the long-game, in sustainability – that is for the good of the game. But, if the intent isn’t for the ‘good of the game’; if it is for commercial reward; if it is to boost TV contracts and line the coffers of billionaire owners and executives; then handing out a jersey in a box and force-feeding tweets to Premier League footballers is probably the way to go.
On the evidence at hand, it seems NFLUK is doing exactly the things it needs to achieve its aims.