NFL's gateway to the world

NFL UK Alistair Kirkwood chief wants to use the UK as a springboard to help the sport score a comms touchdown internationally.

For the benefit of those few readers of PRWeek who happen not to be jocks, American football is that game you sometimes see on TV that looks like rugby but with the players wearing crash helmets and shoulder pads.

It is massive business in the US where it is controlled by the National Football League and enjoys a grip on American sporting and cultural life of which the Premier League here could only dream. It is the most popular sporting entertainment in the country by far. Gates average 67,000 and 34 of the 35 biggest TV audiences last year were for NFL games.

In fact it just couldn’t get any bigger. That is why in 1986 the NFL set its sights on the UK and now stages league games at Wembley Stadium. "NFL enjoys a dominance in the US not matched by any sport or league in the world, so the only place it can grow is internationally," explains Alistair Kirkwood, CEO of NFL UK.

"The UK has the infrastructure and the logistical capacity, the market and crucially the language for NFL players, half of whom don’t even own a passport. All these things make the UK the best gateway to the rest of the world," he adds.

NFL may rule supreme across the ocean, but here it is just a challenger brand. Forbes magazine estimates that the NFL turnover was "north of $9bn [£5.7bn]" last year. Premier League income was around $4.5bn (£2.8bn). But one estimate puts NFL UK gate receipts from the three games staged here last year at just $32m (£20m) – and only a fraction of that is available for marketing and comms. "As a result PR is absolutely fundamental to our efforts and we have an extensive multi-level, multi-year PR strategy," says Kirkwood.

Part of that strategy is to play down the possibility of what you might call a ‘grey squirrel effect’ where a more vigorous North American rival comes and wipes out the native breed. So Kirkwood stresses NFL is not aiming to make soccer and rugby extinct here, rather its ambition is to "grow to the extent we can support and complement those sports. We do not want to replace them."

When it comes to communicating with consumers, the prime target is people under 30. Kirkwood says: "The average age of the UK NFL fan is 27 because by the time people pass 30, they are set in their ways." So communication is about taking the positives from the US, such as the strength of the athletes. Crucially though, the game has to be represented in a way that allows UK fans to represent it as part of their own identity.

That process of cultural assimilation is aided by the showcase promotion in the NFL calendar, the annual takeover of Regent St in central London. So this October on the eve of the Jacksonville Jaguars vs Buffalo Bills game at Wembley, the NFL hopes to attract 600,000 people to play interactive games and watch historical displays and musical acts, as well as performances from NFL cheerleaders and appearances by the star players and coaches from both teams.

Another aspect of integration is government relations. With a little help from Hanover Communications, the NFL meets with the London Mayor’s office every quarter – the income from fans visiting for the games makes it a local political issue. And they lobby the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sport.

But the major triumph of NFL PR recently must be the fact that it was mentioned on page 32 of the most recent Conservative Party manifesto, which said the party aspired to having a new NFL franchise (team) in the UK. Chancellor George Osborne subsequently said the Government would do anything it could "to make this happen". If it does, NFL comms will go into overdrive and PR will be even more important. "It’ll be the weekly equivalent of the Ryder Cup," says Kirkwood, rubbing his hands in anticipation.

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