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I would kill to be the chief executive of…NFL


Yesterday, over 120m people sat down to watch the Super Bowl. Of that audience, over 110m were in the US – and less than 800,000 in the UK.

And, if anything, that UK audience is shrinking. American football – with its stop-start gameplay, extraordinarily complex rulebook, and brash Americana – was always going to be a hard sell in the UK. But the National Football League (NFL) is one of the sharpest and most successful commercial organisations in the world. The NFL has been trying to crack the global market for more than 25 years, so why has it failed to pull it off? Is it the sport? The brand? Or could it just be the way the sport’s governing body has chosen to engage with the UK audience?

Insulting your intelligence

If I were in charge, I would start with the product. Yes, we now get three regular season games played here in London, but they are unfailingly mediocre match-ups. Surely if you want an unconvinced consumer to value your product, then the startpoint has to be to value those same consumers enough and invest in sharing the best you have to offer? It is amazing how intuitively consumers in any market can sense whether a brand truly respects them – and I’m afraid that the NFL is currently failing this test.

Kill the glitz

Is it the brand? NFL is one of the most globally recognised sporting brands, associated with all the energetic commercial confidence and glamour that America has to offer. But let’s be honest, that kind of Americana can be pretty polarising, particularly at a time when Trumpian glitz and commerciality is writ large. Now here, the NFL has been pretty smart. Over the past 10 years or so, the organisation has been visibly testing and learning, and building confidence. We have gone from purely exhibition games, to one regular season game a year, to now three games a year. During this period, it has tried out everything from different stadia, to a variety of entertainment, to several approaches to pre-game buzz. However, this process has been painfully slow.

Cracking the code

If only they had been more expansive in what they have tried and found ways to test things on more than an annual basis, maybe they would have cracked the formula a damn sight quicker. All of which brings me to my third and perhaps most important point: values. We get the party theatrics, but NFL UK has failed to show us the real guts of the game. Whatever the sector, people become fans and advocates when they identify with the values of the brand – and when you dig below the surface, the NFL has some of the best: selflessness, character, excellence, and family.

Perhaps if the NFL stripped back the glamour and instead found ways to showcase the values that really drive the sport and the people that play it, then others would walk willingly into their multi-billion dollar franchise.