Posted on 05 November 2013.
Guest Post: Aaron Syed Jaffery (@aaronjaffery) is Managing Partner of global digital sport consultancy NineteenEightyFour. Following his look at the NBA’s visit to Manchester he turns his attention to the NFL International Series at Wembley.
NFL is America’s most popular sport by far. In a survey by Harris Interactive in December 2012, 34% of American’s listed Pro-Football as their favourite sport, compared to just 16% for the MBA. However, the NFL is predicted to reach saturation in its core market soon, and so has set its sights firmly on Europe for expansion. Bridging the divide between Europe and the USA, the NFL has identified the UK as the first market to crack. Alistair Kirkwood, Managing Director of NFL UK, explained the country’s attraction to NFL “the UK has a highly developed sporting landscape, where fans follow other sports as well as their main sporting interest… You don’t find this in France or Germany”.
The NFL has been attracting big crowds in the UK since 1986, and there have already been many failed attempts at grounding the sport here. In 1990 the World League of American Football (WLAF) was founded and quickly panned, it reappeared in 1995, and was reinvented as NFL Europe in 1998 and NFL Europa in 2007. The NFL are keen on a UK-based franchise, but despite recent sell-out events at Wembley, its clear there is still a lot of work to do. Shad Khan, owner of Fulham FC and the Jacksonville Jaguars explains why, “Quite frankly it’s very premature. There is, in all candour, a novelty aspect to it”.
In building interest in the sport in the UK, the NFL have returned to basics. One way they’re looking to grow their UK fan base is through social media. To gain an insight into exactly how the NFL are socially activating the UK sport market, NineteenEightyFour took a look at the NFL International Series game played at Wembley last weekend: Jacksonville Jaguars v San Francisco 49ers.
Getting experientially excited
To kick the International Series off back in September, NFL took over London’s Regent Street for a day. One of the busiest shopping streets in London became a traffic-free, American football zone featuring; player appearances, cheerleaders, drumlines, interactive games and the all important american food. And, on 26th October (the day before the Jaguars v 49ers game), a very similar ‘NFL Fan Rally’ was held at Trafalgar Square. In addition to this, on game day a ‘Tailgate Party’ was hosted by Sky Sports at Wembley Stadium. The events at the party were much the same as the rally, but this time it was more about getting fans involved in the game day buzz.
Looking at the in-stadium, tailgate and fan rally promo, there was little to no signposting of NFL social networks or websites. Emblazoning everything from the stage, billboards, stadium, banners and flags with a campaign hashtag or social media handle, would have directed a huge amount of traffic to the sites. Fans would have done a lot of standing around and queuing at the events, time which may have been spent on their phones talking about NFL on Facebook and Twitter. And so not directing the audience to a specific page, or encouraging them to use a hashtag, was a missed opportunity.
A lesson in NFL
NFL has rightly created a separate UK page for the International Series, eliminating the risk of an NFL novice being overwhelmed by the US website. And one good aspect of the website for the UK market is ‘NFL 360’. NFL 360 provides all the information even the most novice of user would need to understand American football. And realising that having an allegiance to a team provides much of the excitement for fans, the site also encourages and provides the background for the user to pick a team to support. However, tailoring content to the UK market is where other parts of NFL’s digital strategy fall short.
Missed Opportunities on Social Platforms
At present there is no market specific NFL UK Facebook page, with only the global page used. Considering the NFL are aiming to convert UK sports fans, overwhelming the unfamiliar fan with a global Facebook page full of information targeted at diehard US fans, could in fact have the adverse effect. Likewise, NFL ran a #NFLUK campaign through Facebook, and almost every time it was mentioned it was met by a mass of negative comments from US fans. Re-routing the campaign through a UK Facebook page would have very simply avoided this, and would have allowed the campaign to reach the desired target market.
Despite a lack of localisation strategy, the NFL global page saw a significant increase in Likes from the UK between the start of September, and end of October during the International Series marketing.
In addition, clear buzz was created around the two games played at Wembley, with a peak of almost 450,000 mentions on Facebook in the build up to the first game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings on Sunday 29 September.
To us, with such an increase in engagement, not having built a specific UK focussed NFL page seems a lost opportunity. It could have nurtured a novice fan through a sport so fundamentally different to those on offer on the UK market.
More positively, UK specific Twitter and Vine accounts did enable UK fans to interact. However, although the NFL UK website linked to Facebook and Twitter, it didn’t direct the user to the NFL UK Vine account. On Vine, NFL UK was uploading some great clips, which sadly many fans will have missed out on. With only 606 people following NFL UK on Vine, linking to the content was an overlooked opportunity.
NFL UK’s commercial director, Ben Dunn, said in reference to social media “through content we’re making it easier for fans to follow any team or match, whether it’s shown on television or not”. So it seems whilst the intentions are there, it isn’t necessarily translating into social activation.
49ers put the effort in
The San Francisco 49ers didn’t just win the game; they smashed it on social media. And a fair amount of the NFL Facebook page’s content was taken from the 49ers.
A 49ers helmet went on a photo tour of the UK, branded using #UK49ERS, and was uploaded to Facebook and Twitter. As part of the tour, some of the players went to the football grounds of: Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Manchester City. Piggy backing on the UK’s existing football fan base is an effective leverage tactic that allows the NFL’s message to reach a much wider audience – one that was used by NBA UK just a few weeks ago.
The NFL is coming. With the Super Bowl now a live fixture on BBC1, sell-out crowds and an increasing number of International Series games announced for 2014, headway is being made into this new market. Participation in American Football in the UK is increasing with BAFA (British American Football Association) reporting year-on-year growth of the game at University level, and a reported 33,000 players of the game across the UK. Tottenham Hotspur are even awakening to the sport, reportedly exploring teaming up with an NFL franchise to build a new stadium in London.
This year, possibly more than any other, Social provided the NFL with a unique opportunity to engage and amplify their message across all social platforms. Experiential events and high-profile advertising campaigns all did their part – fans engaged and shared content, building all important awareness.
However, the lack of a localisation strategy for Facebook may be something that the NFL looks to improve in future years. It is clear the communication needs for a UK audience differs from that in the US. Additionally, not utilising earned media content across all social channels represents another missed opportunity.
All in all, the NFL UK activation strategy had a very positive effect, and puts the NFL on the front-foot going into the PlayOffs. But just think how good it could have been…