NFL v the fans: Will the league’s overseas ambitions ever trump Super Bowl scheduling?

Will restless dissatisfaction ever see the NFL bend to the will of its overseas viewers? SportsPro spoke to NFL UK head of marketing Sarah Swanson to find out.

NFL v the fans: Will the league’s overseas ambitions ever trump Super Bowl scheduling?

Each year, an estimated 160 million viewers worldwide tune in for the Super Bowl, yet less than a third of that audience comes from outside the US market. It is a reality that brings football’s long-established title as America’s Game under scrutiny and should serve as food for thought for executives at the National Football League (NFL).

For years, the NFL has been at pains to develop a more international reach and footprint, its leaders intent on cultivating the league’s global brand and educating fans on foreign shores. Annual regular season games in London and Mexico City have become the focal points of the league’s international growth strategy, while targeted investments and promotional activities in other important territories like China, Brazil and Germany have signalled its developing aspirations overseas.

So what of the Super Bowl, the league’s blue-riband event? At home, the game remains a unique, all-dominating media and cultural phenomenon - by far the biggest televised event in the US, it is a marketing and advertising extravaganza, thanks largely to its status as a highlight of the American sporting calendar and its annual domestic audience of more than 111 million viewers. In overseas markets, however, the NFL’s season-ending showpiece lags some way behind other major sporting events like the Uefa Champions League final, which draws a global audience of around 350 million viewers each May.

Part of the reason for the Super Bowl’s relative lack of reach beyond the US comes down to its kick-off time. On Sunday, for instance, this year’s game between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles in Minneapolis will begin at 6.30pm eastern time - a time slot that undoubtedly satisfies North American audiences from the west to east coasts, but is decidedly less accommodating for overseas viewers in different timezones.

Take the UK, for example. Though it may be a key target market for NFL executives who talk regularly of potentially establishing a London franchise in future, Sunday’s game will kick off at 11.30pm GMT, creating difficulties for even for the most ardent of British football fans. Indeed, for those wishing to see the game and all its myriad festivities through to their conclusion, a late night is unavoidable.

“All of the international markets complain about that,” admits Sarah Swanson, the head of marketing at NFL UK (pictured right). “It would be great if they could change the kick-off time.”

In light of those scheduling challenges, Swanson says her team must get creative when it comes to marketing what is the single largest annual sporting event on the planet. “There is not a lot we can do about kick-off time,” she adds, “but what we can try to do is promote Super Bowl as an unmissable event and hope people will come together, have a bit of a party and almost see that as part of the fun.”

Although Swanson says the Super Bowl remains a spectacle high-profile enough that it “can transcend its kick-off time”, she does not rule out the possibility that the NFL and its broadcast partners could look to schedule future editions to better accommodate overseas viewers, just as other major rights holders have done with their flagship occasions in the past.

“[The kick-off time] is not my decision,” she says. “You can imagine how many people would be involved in a decision like that. 

“I think at the NFL one of the phrases we use a lot is that we’re restlessly dissatisfied. We’re a league that changes rules every off-season: we change distribution strategy, we’re always looking at ways to make sure we’re doing the best we can for the game itself, the business and for the fans – so I think nothing is off the table. 

“I would never say never for anything at the NFL. We’re always trying to make sure we’re looking at every aspect of the game and make the best decision we can for our fans.”

I would never say never for anything at the NFL. We’re always trying to make sure we’re looking at every aspect of the game and make the best decision we can for our fans.

While it is not clear whether Super Bowl scheduling is stunting the NFL’s growth overseas, there is evidence to suggest that the game’s difficult time slot is having a knock-on effect on regular season viewership and efforts to drum up support for football in foreign markets. Swanson notes how many casual British viewers will tune in for the NFL’s showpiece finale, only to be left thinking the league’s games normally air in the UK late at night.

“You ask lots of people: ‘do you watch the NFL’ – ‘no’ – ‘why not?’ – ‘because it’s on so late’,” she says. “They don’t realise that for 22 weeks of the season it’s actually six o’clock and 9.30pm on a Sunday night, which are quite reasonable times to watch football.

“That’s a perception that we have to fight against all year, not just on Super Bowl Sunday.”

Nevertheless, this year’s post-season play has been kind to the NFL from a UK marketing perspective. Every team that came to London and won during the most recent regular season made it into the play-offs, with the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars - currently London’s unofficial franchise owing to their repeated trips to the city - ultimately falling short in their respective championship rounds.

What’s more, there is also the added bonus that this year’s Super Bowl will feature Jay Ajayi, the Eagles’ London-born running back who is the flag-bearer for the UK in the NFL. Ajayi was part of the Miami Dolphins team that visited London earlier in the season, before being traded to the Eagles in a deadline day move that set him on the path to starring in Sunday’s game.

It’s so great to have that kind of access and engagement from a star player on a Super Bowl team

For Swanson, Ajayi’s involvement has been a blessing and then some. “To have somebody who has been such a strong ambassador for us and be so committed to what we’re trying to do in this market is so exciting,” she says. “It’s so great to have that kind of access and engagement from a star player on a Super Bowl team.

“He’s really open to giving us time. He did a call last week with lots of UK media that was specific to them. He’ll be on the BBC highlight show and then he’s done different pieces of content like shout-outs to UK fans.

“He’s a great way for us to engage fans and influencers in the UK. We’re doing stuff with people who have come to our games to wish him luck, just using the simple #goodluckJay, trying to ask folks to support him over here.

“Jay gives us a nice anchor to put content around. If you don’t pick a team he’s an easy way to pick the Eagles. If you’re not a fan of either one of the two teams then why not support him?”