The NFL continues to amp up its marketing agenda both domestically and abroad from mandating elite teams participate in “Hard Knocks” to expanding the number of games in London going forward, and making sure that elite teams like the Dallas Cowboys (next year) help augment the sometimes iffy matchups served up by longtime stakeholder the Jacksonville Jaguars and others. Strong record or not, the Cowboys presence abroad draws interest, much like other elite global brands like the New York Giants would.
It is all a smart amplification of NFL business, putting the pedal to the medal while things are going well as opposed to riding out the good years and hoping no bad comes about that can’t be overcome. The look to become more “global” as a sport makes great sense from a brand standpoint vs. an actual permanent team boots on the ground position, as the digital world shrinks boundaries of the way casual fans can engage either consistently or from time to time with the gridiron.
So does all this London play really mean a franchise is going to go across the pond permanently? Not necessarily. The cost of putting just one franchise in Europe, or anywhere outside North America is a huge challenge, especially for a sport like American football that does not have huge grassroots ties abroad. American expats, casual followers, brands looking to engage in American sport. Sure. But football is not basketball or soccer or even hockey, with thousands of club teams and youth programs already engaged. It’s not even baseball, who has made some stronger forays into not just Latin America and Asia but into Europe (countries like Italy, Germany and the Netherlands) and will now have a larger test in Australia to start 2014. But it is just a test, and a brand activation platform, much like the London games are really for the NFL. Now sure the NFL, like soccer, has a distinct advantage over other team sports in that the games are once a week and an argument could be made that travel is no worse these days than a cross country flight from Miami to Seattle for a weekend. Still the tax implications, differing workman’s compensation rules, the extra few hours of broadcast time all play against a solo franchise abroad.
Where is the benefit? Branding for one. The NFL and its merchandise and licensees are global and a steady foothold to point to every year in London gives a destination to market around every year, much like brands do with the US Open in the States. Knowing the time and location every year makes for great long-term planning.
Another key move is the introduction of new brands to the NFL and American sports culture. By having a more steady presence abroad, there are a host of brands from across the world who can safely sample the American sports landscape in their own back yard before dipping in whole hog. Want to touch and feel American football in a great setting before travelling across the world, then the NFL London stop, in a regular season game, is the place to give it a shot.
For the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose owner Shahid Khan now also owns Fulham of the Barclays Premier League, the consistent presence in London each year is both a fan cultivation and business cross-pollination tool. Jacksonville is not a major market with tons of major brands, even in successful years for the team. Exposure not just to London, but to other business on the continent, can help out ancillary income short and long term into the Jags coffers, in addition to boosting all sales of the NFL. Sharing healthy best practices between EPL teams looking to market more aggressively, and the masters of marketing in the US at the NFL, and with the new Jags front office, also makes great sense. It beats struggling to fill an eighth home game in North Florida.
There is also another unspoken but interesting opportunity that will come more into focus as a revenue stream in the coming years, and that is the testing of sports wagering on the NFL. While taboo still to be looked at in the States, gambling rules the roost in the UK. Could the NFL strike some bookmaker deals for solid revenue for games being played in the UK to test the waters for when gambling becomes legal on sport at some point in the US? It would make for a very good litmus test to see the level of interest, and revenue, that would be brought to the table.
There are also other brand tests that could occur for brand NFL beyond the shores of North America. Could the NFL London games test a uniform patch for a new exclusive partner, could those games also test on field advertising of elite brands to see what will and won’t work. Are there broadcasters…a Netflix, an Al Jazeera, a Google…who would take the Europe games as their first foray as a live sports partner maybe not as a US broadcaster but as a digital or non-US test?
All the London activity also doesn’t mean that American football is the must-see for sports fans across the continent. You don’t see Cologne, which had one of the stronger entries in NFL Europe, rising up for a franchise, or Barcelona, or The Hague or even Berlin. What NFL London has become is a very strong business beachhead with great possibilities as a destination for all partners and fans. When it was one preseason game it was a curiosity, when it was a regular season game it became a branding event, when the Jags threw consistency in it became a consistent business play, now with multiple games it becomes a series with economies of scale and consistency for the fall. All of which makes great sense and has nothing but a solid business upside.
In the end, will there be NFL teams in Europe? The reality is that the best chance of global clubs still rests with soccer, which could have elite clubs…at least two in the U.S., which is now a more mature soccer market than ever before. Its schedule lends to it and the culture of soccer, at least for elite clubs, now exists in the States where the NFL does not have that solid culture abroad.
Can NFL every week work across The Atlantic? Tough to say, but it’s not really needed if the brand business proposition as it is now structured continues to grow. Football in Europe is still all things soccer, and changing that culture or finding a stranglehold on a critical mass around soccer or even rugby and cricket, is a huge mountain to climb. Does it have to be climbed to be a success? No. It’s just a matter of defining the role and expanding the niche incrementally, and that’s what the NFL has done.
Smart business by some of the smartest in the game.