London calling: Sarah Swanson on ten seasons of the NFL International Series

Sarah Swanson, the head of marketing at NFL UK, discusses the 2016 International Series.

London calling: Sarah Swanson on ten seasons of the NFL International Series

In 2007 the National Football League (NFL) made the bold decision to host a regular season match outside of the USA for the first time. The game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants was played at the home of English soccer, Wembley Stadium, and played in front of a capacity crowd. After the inaugural match the number of London games rose to two per year in 2013, and three a year later. 

The collective games are known as the NFL International Series and run by a British arm of the NFL, NFL UK. The series, played every October, has become a permanent, integral part of the English sporting calendar. Furthermore, the visiting American players and franchises look forward to the event almost as much as the fans.  

As the dust settles on a tenth successful iteration of the series, Sarah Swanson, the head of marketing at NFL UK, discusses the 2016 matches, new UK activations, the difference of playing at Twickenham for the first time, regional TV partners, future plans for the International Series and whether an NFL franchise will eventually make the leap to London.   

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How successful do you think this year’s International Series was?

By all accounts it was very successful. We had strong TV ratings, sell-out crowds, a really strong atmosphere and great attendances. The whole thing felt bigger, which is exactly what we want. Every year we want it to be fun, well attended, well broadcast and bigger than the previous year.

This was your tenth year in London and every year appears to be getting bigger. What did you do differently this year?

I came over here the previous season; before that I was running the marketing for NFL Network in the US. I spent last season trying to figure out what I thought we should be trying to do differently, to try and elevate what we were already doing here. 

One of the key things that I started to talk about in the off-season was that that the games are incredible and they give us such a platform to be able to talk about everything else that we do. The games are played in October but the NFL season starts in September. What I spent the whole off-season talking about is that we are a sport that is ‘the kick-off to the Super Bowl’, we are not just three games in October. So this year we made a huge effort to launch everything that we were doing at the same time as the seasonal kick-off - at the beginning of September - not on 2nd October with the first London game. 

This year what we had going into those games is momentum and then we were able to capitalise on that during October, which I hope can take us through the rest of the season.

There have been a lot of new and exciting activations before this year’s games, such as inviting England cricket players Sam Billings and Liam Plunkett to a training session with the LA Rams, and the annual Regent Street NFL takeover. What was the thinking behind these and other activations?

We have had Regent Street for a very long time but, again, what we have tried to do was use Regent Street as a platform for other things. So we brought an influencer down and did something with a content partner on Regent Street in the NFL lab. We had Osi [Umenyiora] and Jason [Bell] who are on our BBC highlights show come down and shoot something at Regent Street with other partners. We have had Nike Town for years as part of Regent Street but this year we had a Madden gaming console inside of Nike Town, where we brought influencers from the US and the UK in to play against some of our NFL alumni that we had in town. 

We have put on these events before. We have our games, NFL.com, NFL handles and platforms, but this year we have mainly thought about how we can get our partners speak for us. Or how we can find content partners, sponsors or licensees who can help us tell our story. 

That was the shift this year, so guys like cricketers or footballers give us a great way to do that because you get that crossover content and awareness that you wouldn’t get on your own.

For the first time you played a match at Twickenham Stadium, home of English rugby union. How did the experience differ to the regular home of NFL UK, Wembley?

It is a very different stadium. Personally, I think that the in-stadium atmosphere was extraordinary and, to me, far more similar to a US stadium experience. It certainly felt really loud and fun. From a tailgate perspective and a pre-game perspective, the venue is smaller than Wembley and again more like going to a game in the US. 

I do all of the stadium branding. Wembley has everything built in ready for it but at Twickenham we had to go in and look at all of that really differently. I think that it worked really well but it was, of course, different in every single way! There were a lot of challenges and hopefully we worked successfully through most of them but, for example, there is nothing that you can do about transport to Twickenham: it is what it is. We did our best and you have to cross your fingers and hope with that.

Will the NFL return to Twickenham to play further matches or was it just a one-off?

We have a deal that says that we are going back, so we know for sure that we are playing there again but for how long and for how many matches we don’t know yet. But, we will definitely be back.

Do you have any aspirations to play at any other famous UK sporting stadiums?

The only other place that we know that we are playing at is Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium, which we are involved with. So we are contracted for that but outside of that we don’t have anything right now. That will give us three stadiums that are part of the conversation and after that we will see if we need any more!

Are you noticing an upsurge in demand for tickets over the years? Can you give us any numbers?                   

Yes, definitely from a ticket sales perspective: I am pretty sure that we have announced them as sell-outs. I think that the demand from the first year that we played has been very high and it has continued to be high. 

Honestly, it is hard to put a number on how high it is because we always sell out and then you never know how much more you could do, which is something that we think about every year. What if we add another game? We went from one to two, from two to three; maybe we can go from three to four. I believe that the demand is there and we haven’t seen it slow down at all. Who knows how far we can go? It really is a difficult question to answer because once you sell out a game, you don’t know how many more people would have bought a ticket. I’d love to know. 

How important do you feel it is from a marketing point of view that the games are live competition matches, as opposed to friendlies? 

I think it makes all the difference in the world. That is definitely one of the key marketing messages; I personally think that it is really important to understand that this is a regular season game that counts, in a season that only has 16 regular season game weeks. Each team in the NFL needs to win week in, week out, so truly every game counts. They have made the decision that coming here is important enough to them that they are willing to do that for the good of the game. 

I think as a fan that this is really meaningful. That is something that we are really proud of and so we do push that aspect a lot: these are real games that count to your ability to get into the Super Bowl. One the phrase I like to use is ‘the road to the Super Bowl comes through London’.

How are you going about building a fanbase in the UK when, for many of them, there aren’t many natural points of contact with American football?                      

Yes, well the name itself it tells you where the sport originates from! 

This is all I think about: my whole job is how to attract new fans. Probably the biggest new fan growth driver in 2016 has been the BBC highlights show. Being on the BBC with a show that is season-long - starting in kick-off week - which is currently airing on a Tuesday night and then re-airing on a Friday or a Saturday, has given us a reach that is very difficult to get anywhere else in the UK. 

We have what I believe to be a great show that doesn’t talk down to anybody. It gives you everything that you need to know, has a lot of context and has some analysts who are very funny and very different to anyone else on UK TV. That has, of course, been a huge piece of the conversation this year but I think that we have also tried to find other partners who can help us tell our stories. We have done a lot more with influencers and engaged in partnerships with people like YouTube channel Rule’M Sports: they have guys that go out and try new sports, so it is a really good way of exposing people to the NFL and American football. 

We are always talking about who the partners are that can help us tell our story, whether it is a YouTube partner or someone like the BBC. Then we also have something like EA Sports Madden, which is a really easy way for someone that hasn’t played the game to learn it. They have a second product called Madden Mobile which we have pushed a lot this year. 

Where do you see the future of the International Series in the next five years? How do you see it growing?

From a game perspective we know that we are going up to four games at some point in the next couple of years because of the contracts that we have in place. So at a minimum we will have four games; outside of that I truly do not know. Those sort of decisions don’t get made yet, they get made on how everything shakes out over the next couple of years. 

I think that we have an amazing opportunity to continue more games here or in other parts of the world. For example, our next International Series game is being played at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico. We will see what that looks like as well and we are growing our international content strategy across the board, which is all part of the same thing. If you are playing more games in other countries you are expanding your fanbase - you get more of a broad awareness. 

In this country I am going to be excited to play however many games that you tell us we are going to play, and I am going to make sure that those games work as hard for us through the season. 

Do you think that there is a ceiling on the number of games that London can host? You started with one, then two, then three and soon you will have four: the increase in games has seemed seamless but can it keep rising?

In the NFL, that ceiling would only have to be eight games because that is a regular season home schedule. I personally believe that we could sell out eight games without much trouble – well, I would like to believe so. We haven’t slowed down from one to four so we would like to think that doubling that amount of games wouldn’t be too hard. I think that all of the rest of the work that we are doing is going to continue to bring new people into that funnel, so my thought is that we will keep a lot of the people that have been coming over the past ten years and, in addition, keep growing the fanbase by bringing people in. 

How much do you see your job as almost preparing the groundwork for a UK franchise?        

My job definitely is to make sure that if an owner makes the decision to bring a team to London, we have all of the rest of the things in place: all of the legals, the travel, the scheduling and everything that would have to happen. 

Part of my job is to make sure that we have a fanbase in place that could sustain that franchise. I think about that certainly as part of what I am doing everyday but I would be growing a fanbase regardless of whether we get a franchise here or not. Those things go together but they are not exclusive. Of course, it would be great to get a franchise but if we don’t get one my job is the same. I am still trying to bring in new fans to the NFL.

What do you think the likelihood of a franchise actually coming to the UK is? Are there discussions that you can talk about? 

Well, there are always talks. The league commissioner [Roger Goodell] and Mark Waller [the NFL's executive vice president of international] - who is my ultimate boss - have both been over here. They all say that we are doing everything right. Mark said that he thinks that there is certainly a possibility of a UK franchise. But I don’t know any more than anybody else does, except that it is always part of the conversation.