This week as the NFL kicks off, millions of fans across America will be engaged in ways big and small. Football, and the NFL especially, has become a cultural phenomenon beyond anything the original founding teams could have envisioned. As a global property, especially on Europe, the NFL continues to find its way, and no team has worked harder to carve that niche than the Jacksonville Jaguars. Under the ownership of Shad Khan, the Jags have put down roots in the UK, looking to build not just interest in their annual London game, but in their brand and the sport as well.
Leading the charge for Jacksonville in the UK is senior vice president, international development, Hussain Naqui. Hussain oversees the Jaguars brand development and sponsorship sales efforts in the UK and is also responsible for driving synergies between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham Football Club, which share common ownership.
Before moving to London, Naqi served as senior vice president fan engagement, and before that spent four years with the New Meadowlands Stadium Company in East Rutherford, N.J., where he served as Vice President of Business Planning and General Counsel at MetLife Stadium, the home of the New York Jets and New York Giants.
We caught up with Hussain to talk American football business on the other side of the pond
When you were helping get what is now Met Life Stadium up and running did you ever think you would be working with American football in the UK?
I tell you, I pinch myself on almost a daily basis because I know how lucky I am. Never in a million years would I have imagined such a great opportunity. This really speaks to the vision of Shad Khan and Mark Lamping that they would put the resources behind such a bold initiative. We are an incredibly progressive franchise because of their vision.
How has the Jags brand grown vs other teams in the UK since the team put down roots?
We have a long way to go, but we have made some great strides. We launched the Union Jax Fan Club here in the UK about three years ago, and not have nearly 60,000 members. We are now the 9th most popular team in the UK, up from close to last place when we started coming over here a few years ago. Even anecdotally, when you attend fan events here, or the International Series Games here, the number of Jags fans in attendance is massively improved over where we started.
Speaking of roots, tell us about the grassroots programs and why they are so essential?
In this country, American football is unlike any sport played here, and it’s a difficult sport to follow by just turning on the TV – there’s very little intuition behind it. Unless you have someone sit with you and explain it, our game isn’t as easy to pick at first exposure as would soccer or basketball. We take it for granted because we learn the game in the US from a very early age. I firmly believe that sustained growth of the game here will only come as a function of young people playing it and understanding it.
That’s why we’ve employed a “growth through participation” strategy. We have introduced a modified version of American football called JagTag that is now being played in more than 30 secondary schools across London. The focus is boys and girls age 11-16. Eventually, it is this group that will evangelize about our sport, and wrestle the remote away on Sunday evenings to watch the NFL broadcasts.
To further enrich their interaction with the sport, we will be taking close to 180 kids to our game at Wembley for free as part of pour Reward Rows program. These attendees must maintain certain academic and lifestyle goals, as set by their schools.
Is there crossover between Fulham efforts and those of the Jags from a business perspective?
Absolutely. We are always learning from each other. The Fulham staff has been immensely helpful in executing many of our grassroots programs, and the Jags have been able to shed some light on some of our successes on the business side in Jacksonville, particularly as it relates to ticket sales and database management. I have an office at Mostpur Park, where Fulham trains, so there is really constant communication between the two groups.
How has the Jags presence in the UK helped the business in Jacksonville?
From the beginning of this commitment to play in London, we have been very clear that playing in London makes us a more stable franchise in Jacksonville.
Because of our multi-year commitment to bring a home game to Wembley Stadium each year, we have a fundamentally different financial arrangement with the NFL than the other participating teams in the ISG. We take P&L risk on the game, so we benefit from Wembley’s higher capacity, higher average ticket price, and sponsorship around the game. The Wembley game now represents about 15% of our “local” revenue and that upside makes a world of difference for a team that operates from one of the smallest markets in the U.S. that has a professional team in any sport.
There are a number of soccer clubs putting down roots in the US now, are there parallels to what the Jags are doing in the UK from a business perspective?
There certainly seems to be. Without knowing the intricacies of their respective strategies, there is little doubt of the benefit of having a local presence in-market to learn first-hand what your (potential) customers want and need. It’s very difficult to learn and react to a market in the abstract, especially when you’re completely new to the surroundings.
On a fall evening or late afternoon what would fans of American football see in the UK? Are there supporter clubs there and how do you engage with them?
The NFL International group here in London has done a great job in getting TV coverage for the sport. On a Sunday evening, you’d be able to park yourself in front of the TV and catch Sky’s coverage of a 1:00 pm (EST), 4:00 pm (EST),and the primetime NBC game. If you’re die hard enough, you can watch the Thursday and Monday primetime games too.
At least in London, there are a number of bars where people will gather to watch the Sunday games. It’s a tightknit community, so word gets around about where people are watching.
How does the social strategy for the Jags work in the UK? Is it different or aligned with that of the US?
It really depends on the context. Generally, we use our social networks here to amplify each other’s messaging (US and UK). Of course, there are market specific messages where we want to communicate relevant information, so we particularize there.
On game days here in the UK, we have taken a slightly different approach to what you’ll see in the US. We have a dedicated team watching the Sky broadcast, and will send out messaging that people who follow us, and know the game, can share with their friends. For instance, we have a series of .gifs we’ve animated that will describe common fouls (holding, roughing the passer, offsides, etc.). We encourage those who know the rules to share that messaging so they can educate their friends.
NFL fans here are proud of being NFL fans, so this also gives them an outlet to spread their knowledge.
What about non NFL brands…do you have the ability to align with them away from the game controlled assets and how has that gone?
This is a crucial part of what we want to do here – bring in non-traditional partners to this sport. We have some very interesting and scalable platforms for brand to engage with, so we really feel like we have a unique offering in the sports landscape.
What has been your proudest achievement thus far, and what remains the biggest challenge?
We had an incredible Jags Academy here in July, which was a three-day, in-residence camp where we brought over a number of active Jags coaches and former players to provide skill development in a way these players had never experienced before –from technique to film study –it was all totally new for most players, and would have been just as new even for some in the U.S. Day four of the camp was a coaching clinic for football coaches throughout the UK. We had ten countries represented (two players came from as far away as Russia), and received rave reviews from the participants. It was really gratifying.
We are a challenger sport here. The sporting culture in this country is long-established and proud. Introducing a foreign sport is not easy, and building a fulsome business around it in relatively short order is even more difficult. Our progress has been remarkable considering that we only announced our commitment to London in August of 2012 and we expect continued success and growth, but it’s important to remember that patience is a virtue.