Aaron Duckmanton, global head of marketing at Grabyo on why the time is right for the NFL to go large in the UK.
The NFL has had a long love affair with the UK dating back to the 80s. Since 2007, the league has hosted at least one of its regular-season fixtures in London, reaching 28 in total in 2019. In 2016, it struck a deal with the BBC that brought NFL football to British TV screens for free and this year Monday Night Football will also be made free-to-air on Channel 5. Long term partner Sky reaches 25 years of live NFL coverage this year.
In new broadcast partnerships and international fixtures, the efforts of the NFL to expand beyond the US, in the UK in particular, have been highly successful. Sky Sports’ weekly NFL ratings have doubled in the past decade, while its overnight coverage (including the hugely popular NFL RedZone) rose 32% in 2018. The league estimates it has around 15 million fans in the UK.
Ahead of the 2020 NFL season, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the sports broadcasting and media landscape to look very different, and despite the cancellation of this year’s London games, the NFL is once again poised to grow its international audience.
By working with multiple broadcast partners, the NFL is doing everything it can to make live games and highlights accessible to anyone in the UK. Historically UK fans have had to put in a lot of leg work to watch live games and follow the league, while paying for multiple broadcast and streaming subscriptions.
The combination of games on free-to-air and pay-tv ensures the NFL can reach both casual and fanatics alike, whilst its OTT offering, NFL Game Pass allows fans to watch every single game live and on-demand right through to Super Bowl LV. However, NFL Game Pass currently costs £143.99 per year (or 4 x £36 payments) for UK customers, which likely prices it out for new fans who aren’t ready to commit.
The other option for UK NFL fans is to subscribe to Sky Sports, who have announced a dedicated Sky Sports NFL channel from this year. Sky have said they will air at least five live games a week, alongside all of the NFL flagship programmes. This is a smart way for the NFL to reach existing Sky Sports customers, by providing an around-the-clock channel that fans can pick up and watch at any time.
However Grabyo’s new At Home Video Trends (UK) report found that pay-TV subscriptions have fallen 9% since the UK went into lockdown in March, and may only have a 40% market share in five years time.
The long-term play for the NFL is to get content in front of UK fans for free. It was announced this week that ViacomCBS’ UK free-to-air Channel 5 has acquired the rights to show Monday Night Football in the UK, with an Endzone show each weekend. Alongside the BBC’s weekly magazine show, UK fans will have access to more free-to-air NFL TV content than ever before.
There is a chance for the NFL to capitalize on this momentum. During lockdown in the UK, usage of social media platforms to watch video has soared. Platforms like Twitch and YouTube have experienced significant growth in audiences, and it’s likely this behavioural change will stick around.
The NFL has taken steps to appeal to digital audiences in the UK. Like many, the league has been producing more social media content for its UK channels. However, it has begun to more closely align its UK output with its global channels. For instance, renowned Fantasy League analyst Adam Rank has begun appearing on NFL UK social content.
But the real gains lie in creating more bespoke content for the UK, which will be key in attracting new audiences.
For the season kickoff, the NFL is broadcasting a completely new live show to Twitter called NFL UK Live At Home, with guest stars and analysts from the sport, hosted by Neil Reynolds, one of the faces of the NFL on Sky Sports.
During lockdown, social live streaming has hit the mainstream and building on this momentum will be key for the NFL in the UK. The type of content the NFL has produced for the UK in the past has been less technical and more introductory – something it will need to blend into new content formats to appeal to new fans.
If the league wants to continue to reach more UK viewers, focussing on social live video throughout the season is a step in the right direction. Social live broadcasts are highly interactive, through comments and reactions on the broadcast post. Shows that invite interaction, through polls or social comments, enjoy longer watch times and engagement. Using these tactics, the league can tailor broadcasts to the specific needs of UK audiences, as those watching can dictate more of what they see on screen.
The league will be supported by its teams in this endeavour, as we’ve seen multiple teams bolster their social content strategies leading up to the season. Franchises like The Arizona Cardinals, for instance, have been live-streaming press conferences and updates from their training camp weekly.
While fans in the US are unable to attend games, fans in the UK will benefit from this increased content output – driven by the need to provide more value for team sponsors, and keep fan engagement high while stadiums are empty.
We’re entering a period of ripe opportunity for the NFL and its teams to double down on digital content to reach larger international audiences like never before. Forced remote production practises are making it possible to manage a multinational content strategy more effectively, while changing video consumption habits are putting eyeballs where the NFL needs them to be.
Despite no on-field UK presence in 2020, this could be the year the NFL conquers the UK market.
Aaron Duckmanton is global head of marketing at Grabyo