‘We see a rising tide in UK fans’: Tracing the NFL spike amid London’s cancelled games

As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in May, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell abandoned this season's 2020 London games, ending a streak of annual games in the UK going back to 2007. While the league remains grounded, international media lead Sameer Pabari is confident the league’s overseas broadcast strategy means it can continue to grow reach overseas.

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As the nights grow longer and temperatures begin to tumble, The Star Spangled Banner usually rings out around London’s Wembley Stadium during two weekends beginning every October. 

Last year, the home of English soccer hosted the National Football League (NFL) for its 13th consecutive season, with the Los Angeles Rams and the Houston Texans earning victories during their respective stays in the UK capital. Two earlier games at Tottenham Hotspur’s new US$1 billion stadium saw combined attendances for the 2019 NFL London Series come close to 300,000, a figure which illustrates the appetite for American football amongst the British public. 

With the 2020 NFL season well into its second month, the climate a year on is very different, to say the least.

The NFL did not feel the immediate impact of the coronavirus that brought the sporting calendar to a grinding halt in mid-March. The worst, it could be argued, fell during the NFL’s offseason, though the pandemic is still causing havoc seven months later.

In April, the NFL became the first of North America’s major leagues to host its annual draft remotely, and despite recent postponements to games since its season start in September, the organisation has found a way to welcome back fans to stadia in states where limited gatherings are permitted.

Nevertheless, with restrictions to global travel effectively grounding the NFL this season, the league is still vying to grow its audiences overseas. Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, moved in May to confirm that this year’s scheduled London Games would not be going ahead, with a return to international markets pushed back to 2021.

The Los Angeles Rams, pictured, defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 24-10 at Wembley Stadium last year

Reflecting on the decision, Sameer Pabari, the NFL’s managing director of international media, says that the league made the call quickly after consulting the UK government and local health authorities.

“Clearly, it was the right decision to take,” he tells SportsPro. “We’re 100 per cent committed to bringing the games back. In the meantime, the aim is to continue to execute against our overall fan engagement strategy, which centres on the great work that we and our media partners do.

“The draft was a really good example of how we switched tack; from hosting a full on live event and hosting close to a million people in Las Vegas, and working hand in glove with ESPN, one of our key media partners in the US, to completely reconfigure what the draft looks like.

“What we’ve learnt, and has helped us reinforce the philosophy that we’ve adopted for the season, is to be flexible and agile. I don’t think anyone can predict how [Covid-19] is going to continue to impact society as a whole, but particularly the sporting sector.”

Rising tide

In the five months since the NFL cancelled this year’s international games – including its annual fixture in Mexico City – it would have been ill-advised for the league to rest on its laurels. On the contrary, while the focus has centred on getting the 2020 season up and running domestically, the NFL has sought to expand its media offerings in key European markets.

Among the most notable moves made this year is a five-year extension to its partnership with pay-TV broadcaster Sky Sports, which includes the launch of the league’s own dedicated channel and which will, according to Pabari, serve as a key mechanism for growing its UK fanbase.

Pabari says the NFL’s new broadcast deals in the UK – which also include a reunion with commercial network Channel 5 –  have been in the pipeline for some time, and now present an ideal mix of premium and free-to-air (FTA) games for blooding new fans.

“The international games play a key role for us in fan development and fan engagement, particularly in the UK where we have so many games,” he continues. “But it’s also worth remembering that that is for a single month during the year.

“Even though we sell out those games, only a small percentage of our UK fanbase actually get to experience the games in person. We began talking about the potential for a dedicated NFL channel in the summer of 2019, so that’s way before anyone had even heard about Covid-19.

“This new channel gives sports fans the opportunity to learn more about the NFL – the players, the teams, the history, and the excitement around the game – while the actual number of games that Sky will be showing will be the same as it was in the past few years.

“It’s really about rounding out the exposure of the stories that the NFL has beyond the windows that those live games feature.”

Pabari also offers insight into how the breadth and makeup of the NFL’s broadcast deals can aid the growth of its existing digital assets, including the league’s Game Pass over-the-top (OTT) streaming platform, which offers exclusive games live in the UK and other international markets.

“One of the core strategic goals for the NFL is to increase the popularity of the sport and the size of its fanbase outside the US,” he says. “We use our media partnerships to help deliver that strategy. 

“So, in any given market, what we try to do is to offer some level of free-to-air exposure to build awareness for the sport and we want to work with a top pay-TV partner that is already serving the sports community. Then, for our most dedicated fans, there is our direct-to-consumer Game Pass streaming service.

“We believe that all three of them co-exist and we have, in several markets, the ability to grow the audience and engagement across all of those platforms. It’s not really zero-sum – if we do our job well in marketing the sport, communicating to our fans, and working well with our partners, we feel that it’s a question of a rising tide.”

Wembley Stadium was due to host two 2020 London Series games

The sports equinox

At its core, Pabari says that the launch of the NFL’s own channel on Sky Sports – which joins an exclusive club of dedicated sports offerings on the network – presents “a very powerful way to give viewers the opportunity to delve into more detail around the NFL”.

“That said, the Game Pass remains the flagship digital product for the NFL,” he expands, “and still has the most content on it – both in terms of all of the games either via a live or catch-up basis, and the full archive of programming that the NFL produces.

“In terms of the interplay between the new dedicated channel on Sky and our OTT service, I think what we would say is that, whilst we do have one of the largest sports OTT services in the world, we still believe in the power of being part of a great sports bundle.”

As reported by SportsPro earlier this month, the NFL has enjoyed substantial growth in the UK market, including an eight per cent year-on-year (YoY) increase in viewership for its Sunday evening games. That is despite coming up against stiffer competition for airtime than in any season before the pandemic.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and the scattered nature of sport’s return in the aftermath, the NFL finds itself in the peculiar position whereby it has had to contend domestically with North America’s other major leagues – including the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL) – whose 2020 postseasons were pushed back beyond their usual summer completion.

We’re 100 per cent committed to bringing the games back. In the meantime, the aim is to continue to execute against our fan engagement strategy

Sameer Pabari, the NFL’s managing director of international media

“While thinking about this, I’ve learnt a new term which is the ‘sports equinox’, whereby the NFL, the NBA, MLB and the NHL have games on at the same time,” Pabari says. “Prior to this season, I think that has happened maybe 17 times in the course of history, and I think, in September alone, we have had four days where all of the major sports leagues in the US have been playing games.”

Similarly, in the UK, the NFL has also gone up against more evening Premier League fixtures. With no fans in stadia, English soccer’s top flight agreed with its domestic broadcast partners, including Sky Sports, to air every game during September.

“It’s clearly an issue with the US,” Pabari continues. “I think you have seen overall engagement of all sports go up but the audience has been more fragmented. But we do see that same competitive dynamic in the international markets and, in many cases, to a greater extent. 

“In the UK, we no longer have that 6pm to 12pm timeslot largely to ourselves as we have had in the past. We now have Premier League games for the first time appearing in new slots on a Sunday afternoon and that puts challenges on our media partners from a scheduling standpoint and it also means that consumers, and sports fans generally, have a much broader choice in terms of what they want to watch.

“The fact that we’re recording strong numbers on Sky – in line with 2019 – during that Sunday afternoon window, and growing it by eight per cent compared to last year’s average, is really a testament to the NFL’s appeal and that dedicated fanbase.”

The London Series accounted for 11 per cent of the Jackonville Jaguars' local revenue in 2019

New horizons

With a presence in 200 markets, the NFL has around 80 broadcast partnerships and delivers games in more than 25 languages. Among its target markets, the league is also vying to bring international games to Germany, while a recent partnership with L’Equipe sees the NFL expand its presence in France, with the media company airing one Sunday game per week via its FTA linear network and digital channels.

In Europe, Pabari also cites partnerships with Spanish digital subscription service Movistar+ and Scandinavian media giant Nordic Entertainment Group (Nent) as key areas of focus. In the Americas, he says that Canada, Mexico and Brazil are also territories of interest to the league.

Meanwhile, the Asia Pacific (APAC) is showing increased demand for NFL content, Pabari says. He cites Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand as markets the league is monitoring closely, while the rollout of the NFL’s own dedicated subscription OTT service in China, in collaboration with technology conglomerate Tencent, will afford the league “the ability to tap into younger fans” who live on mobile devices.

“Given the time zone difference,” Pabari continues “It’s really the primetime games – Thursday Night Football, Sunday Night Football, and Monday Night Football – that are of most relevance to the Chinese audience. Give that time difference, people are watching those games on the move rather than at home on the TV.”

The NFL has “seen strong growth in China”, Pabari goes on, adding that Tencent’s reach and relevance among Chinese consumers makes the potential to engage peripheral NFL fans “far broader than the technology companies that we in the West are used to”.

“The fact that it is not only a source of engaging with content, but a prime way of transferring money, arranging a doctor’s appointment, [makes Tencent] pretty ubiquitous,” Pabari expands. “Our relationship with Tencent, which is primarily digital distribution, has been very important to us alongside our traditional TV relationships.”

New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman records a segment for Chinese outlet Tencent

The launch of the new streaming platform holds added significance since it marks the first time that every NFL game will be available to audiences in China, accompanied by an array of shoulder of content. This time last year, as eyes turned once again to London, commissioner Goodell described China as a “priority market” for the NFL on the back of double-digital audience growth since 2018, and hinted that such growth could justify the NFL’s long-touted plans to take regular-season games to the country.

In the interim, building the league’s digital presence in the market will help capture more fans for a league still finding its feet in China, says Pabari, who adds that, unlike its model in the UK, where the Game Pass remains the league’s premium digital product, partnering with a third-party streaming service was the “next logical step”. 

“We actually have our own Game Pass in China but I think the difference is the fact that it’s very much an English-language product,” he goes on. “In order to be able to subscribe, you need to have a foreign credit card. The pool of people that is relevant to is quite limited when you think of the size and scale of the Chinese population and sports fanbase. 

“What we saw, compared to other sports like European football and basketball, which have much deeper roots in Chinese culture, [is that] we’re still a nascent sport; and so, I think, being part of a platform that already has a fantastic product, we thought that was going to be the best approach for us to grow our fanbase.

“The ability to integrate with their product and have great marketing in Mandarin with a tone of voice that Tencent takes care of, it clearly made sense to us from where we are as a sport in China. I think the reality of it is that most media companies that operate in China do need to partner with a local company in some shape or form.”

While the NFL remains grounded, international media lead Sameer Pabari is confident the league’s overseas broadcast strategy means it can continue to grow reach overseas.