The NFL has long had its sights set on international expansion and bringing its game to a global community, even floating the idea of playing a Super Bowl and/or having an expansion team in London. But how far can the International Series in London and the NFL's London-based office, headed by Alistair Kirkwood, go toward building the foundation?
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted November 19, 2009)
Several attempts have been tried and abandoned by the NFL to form a fan and marketing base overseas in the form of European-based American football leagues. In 1991 the NFL launched the World League of American Football (six U.S. teams, three in Europe, one in Canada), which folded in 1993. The strategy was reformatted in 1995 as NFL Europe, which included the London Monarchs, a team that soon became the England Monarchs but folded in 1998. In 2006, NFL Europe morphed into NFL Europa with five teams in Germany and one in The Netherlands. But in June 2007 the NFL pulled the plug for good on this mini-league tactic.
However, the NFL has had much greater success internationally with one-game formats. In 2005, the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals met at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca in front of 103,467 people, the first regular season NFL game played outside of the U.S. In 2007, the NFL unveiled the International Series at London's famed Wembley Stadium, with Bridgestone as title sponsor. In 2007 and 2008, respectively, before crowds of more than 84,000, the New York Giants defeated the Miami Dolphins, 13-10, in a typical London downpour; and the New Orleans Saints defeated the San Diego Chargers, 37-32. This past October the New England Patriots defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 35-7, with new title sponsor Pepsi Max and another 84,500 fans. The 2009 event also was the most substantial to date in terms of marketing support from such NFL partners as Visa, Reebok, Coors Light, Canon, GM/Chevrolet, Marriot and PepsiCo's Pepsi Max and Gatorade; and a Tailgate Party prior to the game, produced by TBA Global, that attracted more than 20,500 fans to such destinations as Reebok retail booths, a 3-D cinema, artifacts from the Pro Football Hall of Fame and, of course, food and beverages from Pepsi, Gatorade and Coors Light.
“The fan pregame tailgate experience is an important NFL tradition, and our focus this year [in London] was to both educate and entertain European fans by immersing them in the culture of American football," said Alison Jenks, vp-marketing for TBA Global. "We added opportunities for fans to learn the history of the NFL, interact with every team and see incredible Hall of Fame artifacts. This event continues to grow and many fans are making it an annual tradition. European fans are clearly ready for American football. We also saw terrific online awareness as fans blogged about the Tailgate Party event and shared photos with friends.”
As the NFL strongly considers adding a second annual game to the International Series, as soon as 2010, and perhaps as many as four in the ensuing seasons, Alistair Kirkwood, director for NFLUK, based in London, spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com regarding the growth of American football, marketing the league and the International Series, the 2012 Olympics and the potential of having a Super Bowl and an expansion team in Her Majesty the Queen's backyard.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What are the biggest differences you've seen from the first International Series game in London in 2007 and the game this past October?
Alistair Kirkwood: We now have a better understanding of everything that is involved in putting the International Series together. When we started, you know you're dealing with an incredible value in terms of what a regular season NFL game means. But so many people within the sport are understandably creatures of habit. Part of the success in any sport is the routine, the known variables. So here is the NFL coming with an International Series and not clearly knowing and not being able to assure right from the start that, apart from making our best effort, how things would work logistically. How things would work operationally. So the big difference now is experience.
NYSJ: Commissioner Goodell has talked about expanding the International Series to two games per season. You've been quoted as saying ultimately there might be four games a year. Could that happen without cannibalizing the event and losing the qualities that make it unique?
Kirkwood: It's a good question. We can, but it would take a slightly different feel. There obviously has been a big demand for the games up until now, and they sell very quickly. Therefore there are more people who want tickets than can get them. That is a good place to be. We had more than 84,400 people this last game. You can still make the International Series special right now with two games a year. You can make them both stand out and be special. Partly because different teams would be coming in, which would make it a different story. But I turn it around the other way: How do you make sure that it doesn't come across as a novelty, as an event that just comes into town and leaves? We have to make the International Series more prevalent and do more things to support it.
NYSJ: Was part of the concern regarding how the travel to London and back would affect the teams playing in the International Series?
Kirkwood: At first, we didn't know whether or not the teams would have a competitive disadvantage for the rest of season. And now we have a history to look at. The New York Giants played in the International Series in 2007 and went on to win the Super Bowl that season. The Chargers won the AFC West and reached the AFC divisional playoff game last season after playing in the International Series Game. New England and [quarterback] Tom Brady have remained competitive this season. The fact that we have been able to put the games on and that it hasn't created any imbalance within the league is seen as a good thing. It's really important that the teams and the owners are saying good things about it.
"I personally don't think a Super Bowl in the UK is actually feasible. The NFL would not shift the time, and Super Bowls are in places where the NFL has a team."
NYSJ: There has been talk about a Super Bowl in London. Would you be ready for that, say in 2020?
Kirkwood: I personally don't think a Super Bowl in the UK is actually feasible, for a couple of reasons. One is I doubt that [the NFL] would shift the time slot for very good reasons domestically. So you are talking about an 11:30 PM or midnight kickoff on a Sunday night and ending at 3:30 AM [in London]. It would be a brilliant concept. It would be a very special event. That goes without saying. But logistically there is an element of realism about it that it's some way off. Also, if you look at the history of where Super Bowls are appointed they are in places that have NFL teams.
NYSJ: There has also been talk about the NFL expanding to London with a team, as opposed to the European leagues the NFL has tried. Do you see that happening?
Kirkwood: The logistics are much more achievable in that scenario. If you look at the amount of time it takes for Seattle to fly to Miami, for example, it is considerably shorter for an East Coast team to come to London. So if I were to take a guess as to what might be more realistic in the future, with the caveat that my crystal ball might be a little bit cracked, I would see a team here before the Super Bowl as a standalone event.
NYSJ: What are some of the marketing activations you've used that fans in the U.S. might eventually see?
Kirkwood: It would be very presumptuous of me to suggest that things we are doing locally would happen domestically. Obviously, this is a different territory with different rules and sensitivities. Therefore, the whole idea of putting a game on here is that there actually is a local experience combined with what we bring over from stateside. So you get the on-field signage that we have, which is completely different from anything stateside. I guess it's closer to a Super Bowl experience in that a substantial number of people in the crowd are neutral. We are the only NFL game, and arguably the only sports game anywhere, where you have all team jerseys represented. It's like a kaleidoscope with 32 team jerseys all around Wembley. So the marketing approach is more about the league than any specific team, which is what you find stateside at NFL games.
NYSJ: Have the changes in marketing and promotion evolved with the game itself?
Kirkwood: If you look at the three years, they've each been very different from a marketing and promotional perspective. The first year was very much about trying to see how it would actually work as a game. So we implemented signage on the field and we did things like having a 26-foot animatronic robot of [Miami Dolphins linebacker] Jason Taylor that we took around London to promote the launch. This year, we had LED signage around the field, and we worked with the NFL's special events department in New York to make sure that what we did was not intrusive to the game. So far we have not had any negative comments about it. Now we use the game much more as a fan conversion rather than a launch that says, "Hey. we're in town." Now it is more about we are here for the long-term, and we have an aggressive plan to become much more popular in this country.
NYSJ: NFL fans are legendary for their tailgate parties, but the NFL Tailgate Party in London seemed more like the NFL Experience at the Super Bowl.
Kirkwood: The NFL Tailgate Party we have here is very different from stateside, partly because Wembley does not have an area for car parking and also because we don't have a heritage of doing anything [like the traditional tailgating prior to NFL games]. So the NFL Tailgate Party we have is one that is closer to the NFL Experience but with a twist to it. There is space to have food and beverages. But our marketing partners each have a presence. There are two Reebok merchandise locations. We put up 32 stands honoring the 32 teams knowing that there would be fans of the Baltimore Ravens and the other teams coming to a New England-Tampa Bay game. There was a Pro Football Hall of Fame exhibit. And there was a 3-D cinema showing NFL highlights of games that had been filmed in that format. Basically trying to celebrate the league as much as possible.
NJSJ: Do you see a time when guys would set up grills, serve chicken and ribs, drink beer and throw footballs outside of Wembley prior to an International Series game?
Kirkwood: Possibly. The best way for that to work would be for it to happen organically. You can't have the organizers — the NFLUK — doing it.
NYSJ: Bridgestone was title sponsor in 2007 and 2008, and this year Pepsi Max signed as title sponsor. How did that that transition work out and what do you see moving forward?
Kirkwood: Bridgestone was a strong partner. Having Pepsi Max worked out very well for us. It was not just the title sponsorship but they [activated] in other areas to support us and the International Series. They sponsor a show on Five this season that airs weekly NFL highlights. They are getting behind us through many initiatives and helping us to build fans and maintain our presence year round. They had a presence around the Tailgate Party for fans and key executives. They also do a lot of work around the Gatorade brand (both brands are owned by PepsiCo) and they offered incentives for rugby clubs to do a bunch of things in order to qualify to be at the International Series, which is nice for us because our game was born from theirs. Pepsi Max signed a multi-year deal as title sponsor, which is important for us because we need to broaden our story out beyond the game itself. And a brand like Pepsi will allow us to get out to consumers.
NYSJ: What was the local response to the Tailgate Party and to the NFL marketing partners that participated?
Kirkwood: Extremely good. We do substantial amounts of research during and after the game each year, and brand recognition is extremely high. We try to ensure that they are integrated as seamlessly as possible without it feeling overtly commercial.
NYSJ: How has the NFL UK's presence grown along with the International Series?
Kirkwood: There's been a London office for a long time, but it's only since 2006 that we have been solely focused on the UK territory, building up the NFL side of things.
NYSJ: Do you feel as if the NFL is still considered as an outsider or is the league becoming more accepted by local fans, consumers and marketers?
Kirkwood: If you were to do a straw poll, you would find some people say one thing and some people would say another. You can see a lot of NFL games over here [on TV]. We have a database on our NFLUK.com site with 20,000 people. We get very decent size audiences for our programming. By the time Super Bowl comes around we get as many as 6 1/2 million people who watch a portion of the Super Bowl even though it's very late on a Sunday night. They don't all stay up [until 3 or 4 in the morning]. For [Super Bowl XLIII] on the BBC, at 3:30 in the morning, toward the end of the game, we still had more than half a million people watching.
NYSJ: The NFL has international partners such as Visa, but are you able to get more UK- or London-based companies involved in marketing and promotions?
Kirkwood: Coors UK is doing a supermarket promotion with us. They put us on pack and other things of that nature. Pepsi Max and Gatorade have local operations and have promotions to support them. But just as we want to become more indigenous over time, we also want to become more indigenous in terms of our commercial partnerships. But on the other side, there is a substantial amount of value around the International Series specifically that is driven from the U.S. just because of the number of people [there] who get to see the game. So it will be a combination of working with UK-based companies as well as global partners.
NYSJ: Is NFLUK working at all with the organizers of the 2012 Olympics in London?
Kirkwood: We have had conversations with them but nothing too formal. They have a huge undertaking. We run a conference with economists on the Friday before the International Series. In the past two years, Paul Deighton, the CEO of the London Organizing Committee, has been to that event and attended other functions we have put on. We have great on-going relationships, but I'm not sure that there are real synergies.
NYSJ: It is not just the NFL, but the NBA and NHL also have targeted London and the UK as places to establish themselves. What is your insight into that?
Kirkwood: The UK TV market is the largest in the world after the U.S. That also means it is an incredibly competitive market. But sports fans here are as avid as anywhere in the world. And they are fans of multiple sports. And they consume sports in so many different ways. So this is a great country for all sports to be doing things. And that has only heightened now that we are building up to the Olympics. It is really understandable. Also, the cultural connection between the UK and the U.S., and the language has a lot of commonality. And when you can sell out a stadium of more than 84,000 for our event, that means you want to continue to focus and to create success and spread that around over multiple territories.
NYSJ: If you look into your cracked crystal ball again, what do you see for the NFLUK five and ten years ahead?
Kirkwood: The way I look at it, if you and I had sat down four years ago and I said to you, "From 2007 to 2009 we will play a regular season NFL game in Wembley, we will sell it out each time, and teams like the Giants, Saints and Patriots will all come over and play," you would have questioned my judgement. That's a polite way of saying it. There wouldn't have been many people who would forecast that as our future. So in looking at what could be in the next five to ten years, the way I would position it is that there is a tremendous and rosy future for us if we continue to execute really well and not take anything for granted. There is an opportunity for us to play multiple games, if we are lucky enough to get those games, and to substantially grow our fan base. But we need to triple or quadruple our current fan base over the next five years and continue to have a combination of positive and aggressive outlook to what we try to do, matched with realism in terms of what the challenge is. And to keep understanding and appreciating the value of and the opportunity to have games over here. So that's a very longwinded way of saying that there is a really rosy future but that the actual scale is up to us.