The National Football League (NFL) made its highly anticipated return last week and North America’s preeminent sports league wasted no time in delivering its first dose of drama, as reigning Super Bowl champions New England Patriots relinquished a half-time lead to succumb to a shock 42-27 defeat at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The beginning of the new season also marked another drive for the NFL’s Game Pass over-the-top (OTT) broadcast platform, which was relaunched across 61 European markets as part of the league’s international growth strategy. The subscription service is integrated across all devices, allows fans to watch every game live and on-demand and prides itself on handing the user full control over the live experience.
Last week, Sam Jones was appointed as the chief executive of OverTier, the joint venture between global sports marketing giant Bruin Sports Capital and advertising company WPP which was launched in June this year to enhance the NFL’s Game Pass offering in Europe.
It is hoped that OverTier’s expertise will enable the NFL to gain a better understanding of its European fanbase, and WPP took advantage of the off-season lull to survey 5,000 existing Game Pass subscribers and detect what its customers believe is missing from the service in order to help shape the direction of the product. With an increased focus on control and portability, Game Pass now allows fans to rewind live games, view up to ten matches at once across five devices and download a 40-minute condensed version of a game which they can watch on their morning commute to work.
Following the relaunch, SportsPro caught up with Jones who discusses how the new partnership between Bruin and WPP will contribute to the evolution of Game Pass, describes some of the challenges involved in connecting with a fanbase in a different time zone, and explains why the NFL’s OTT sports product is a market leader in an increasingly competitive space.
SportsPro: What is the overall objective of relaunching NFL Game Pass in Europe?
Sam Jones: One of the NFL’s key objectives is to develop the fanbase and business of the league in Europe, and as an OTT product, Game Pass is a key pillar in the NFL’s strategy to drive engagement with fans. The NFL has been looking for the right partner which can bring a mix of specialist expertise in technology, software development, marketing and management to really help them accelerate the pace and growth of Game Pass and their OTT direct-to-consumer business. So that brings us to the partnership between Bruin and WPP that has been put in place under the name of OverTier.
Our ambition and our objective is ultimately to change the way people consume live sports, and we want to do that by ensuring that Game Pass is the leading global OTT sports product. We think if we can achieve that, then we’ll be in a great position to grow our audience.
We also want to broaden that audience by making the product really inclusive and open to all. Given the partners involved and the strategic importance to both us and the NFL, we have pretty aggressive and ambitious subscriber targets. We are currently on track to deliver those targets, but obviously with the season only just kicking off we are still right at the start line.
Sam Jones, the new chief executive of OverTier, the joint venture between Bruin Sports Capital and WPP, in partnership with the NFL
How significant is NFL Game Pass for growing the league’s fanbase throughout Europe?
I can’t speak on behalf of the league, but I believe that Game Pass is absolutely critical to the NFL. It’s of huge strategic importance and compliments all of the league’s other partnerships and platforms. The significant thing about Game Pass is that we hold, enrich and nurture a direct relationship with the consumer, and that is a key asset for the NFL.
The business winners of the future are the ones who have direct access and a close relationship to their customers, particularly in terms of an open dialogue which informs how they can improve their product and their content, which is why Game Pass is so important to the league.
What have you learned from the Game Pass operation in the US?
We’ve been learning a significant amount on this journey. We brought a huge amount of insight in from WPP, principally focused on the 61 markets in Europe that we operate in, but also from the US as well.
We surveyed just over 5,100 Game Pass subscribers to understand what they are looking for in the service. Then, moving forward, we have a really rich understanding of what our customers are doing right now and what their needs and desires are, which comes from our own data analytics, but also ongoing conversations in social or in more qualitative forms. So there’s a lot we can learn from the US, but also I would hope there’s a bit they can learn from us as well.
Given that a lot of NFL games take place in the early hours of the morning in Europe, how do you go about ensuring that Game Pass provides value for customers who can’t always watch games live?
Factors like different time zones greatly inform the product that we are developing. A big part of our development is to free the user from the shackles of the traditional ways of viewing. Time zones have always been a barrier to overseas viewing in all sports, not just the NFL, but we’re implementing the measures to move beyond that. If you look at the product today we give full control to the user of the live experience so they can pause, rewind and fast forward.
They can also jump straight into a live game an hour after it has started, rewind it to the beginning and watch it as live. So if you think of what that control does if you’re under time zone constraint, it really is a big thing.
NFL fans in Europe can now download a 40-minute condensed version of a game to watch when they are on the move
How does the approach to Game Pass need to differ in Europe, both on a technical and cultural level?
The best way of answering that is to explain what we’re focused on, which is giving control to the user and removing some of the barriers to accessing a live game. We’re also really focused on the portability of the product, because we know that our customers may want to, for example, download a condensed version of a full game onto their smartphone and watch it on the way to work.
In a portability sense, we’re very focused on multi-device viewing. One of the most unique things about the NFL is the sheer volume of live games. We’re lucky to have over 250 live games on our product but they may take place at five, six, seven or eight different times over the course of one day, so we know it’s really important for our fans to be able to jump between live games in the moment.
A big part of our development is to free the user from the shackles of the traditional ways of viewing
We allow fans to watch Game Pass in a variety of ways on up to five different devices at any one time, and our split-screen feature also allows subscribers to watch over ten games at once. So the portability point not only applies to when you leave your home, but also when you’re within your home. This enables people to consume the sport in a different way, and allows subscribers to set the parameters of what their broadcast looks like as opposed to the other way around, which really encourages people to interact with the NFL in a positive way.
The final thing we’re focused on right now is enriching the experience of the NFL as much as possible. We think that the NFL goes far beyond being just a sport; it’s a genuine experience as well, especially when you think about the culture behind it.
The way we’re trying to enrich it at the moment is through innovation around data within the sport and within the live environment. Our partners Deltatre bring a leading data capability and what we’ve done over the last few months is work really closely with the NFL to ingest all of their data, and for the first time sync it up in real time with the live video feed, which means you’ve got visual and data working together on the fly. This means, for example, if I fast forward or rewind a game, I have access to individual scores, stats for players and teams that will all update and follow the user in real time.
We’re getting to a point where we’re no longer limited by the technology, we’re only limited by our imagination, and I think that’s a really exciting space for us to be in.
Alongside its annual International Series games in London, the NFL sees its Game Pass service as central to its growth efforts across Europe
How will the partnership between Bruin Sports Capital and WPP enhance the overall offering?
I think there are a few things. Firstly, we’re bringing true integration of expertise in areas that are usually quite hard to integrate. We’re integrating technology, marketing, insight and product development, which is really important and greater than the sum of its parts.
The second thing we bring is truly world class expertise in all of these areas, and then we bring scalability. Bruin obviously brings the funding capability, while WPP brings the scale capability across the globe. So this is important because our growth targets dictate that we will need to quickly increase the scale of this project. So the three key points for me are integration, expertise and scalability.
Has the relaunched Game Pass taken influences from any OTT services from other sports, or do you see yourselves as a leader in this space?
We’re all about learning and I think we will be learning from others in this space not only within sports, but outside as well. Personally, I’ve worked across sport, entertainment and music, and I think other industries have lots of interesting lessons to share themselves, so we’re definitely going to be learning from others whether it’s inside our sector or outside.
Our focus, however, is on our own agenda, our own vision and our own fans and customers. I think if we put the right degree of focus on to our fans in particular, we’ll build the right product for them, our audience will grow and we won’t need to be looking sideways too much because we’ll be leading the sector.
If you look at what we’ve got today, the product already includes over 250 live games, real-time data integration with the video stream and all our additional broadcasting around NFL Network which is on 24 hours a day. I think if you wrap all that up in one product, I don’t see another sports product out there that has got that level of breadth of content and control of the game for the user, so I think we’re already leading.
OTT is widely perceived to be the future of broadcasting. How important is it for major leagues like the NFL to develop their OTT services now, given that it could soon be the league’s major audience and revenue source?
I think it’s critically important for all sports rights holders to develop their own strategy to directly engage their customers around their core product, which is the live sport itself.
Sam Jones, chief executive of Overtier, was speaking at the European launch of NFL Game Pass, the NFL’s premium OTT offering which is operated by OverTier. To find out more, visit nflgamepass.com.