British Branding: How the NFL Can Win Fans in the UK

Rohan KallicharanCorrespondent ISeptember 19, 2007

IconBefore anyone asks—yes, O.J. Simpson is news over here too.

Or I assume he must be, after overhearing an eight-year-old ask his father who Lance Ito was.

But for a football fan in Britain—for simplicity, I'll risk being alienated by my friends for referring to gridiron as football—this past weekend was about much more than the Juice.

In fact, it was an exercise in unadulterated bliss—not only the joy of three live matches on Sunday, but also the weekly festival known in the UK as "Tuesday Morning Football."

By the time LaRon Landry broke up the Eagles’ last chance saloon in the fourth quarter, after all, it had just turned 5 AM in the United Kingdom.

The proliferation of NFL coverage on UK screens is no coincidence, given a fixture scheduled for October 28th at Wembley Stadium that I can't quite bring myself to call the New York Giants AT the Miami Dolphins.

But if the NFL really wants to thrive Britain, it will have to expand its reach beyond the satellite TV market.  

The league's strategic partnership with the Sky Sports satellite service is a step in the right direction. However, whilst existing fans are elated with the choices at hand, potential converts need to be coaxed away from Spanish "soccer" telecasts—again for reasons of clarity, I risk physical injury by referring to our national sport as such—which air at the same time as football games.

For this reason, the news that Super Bowl XLII and the Dolphins/Giants matchup will be broadcast on BBC1—the UK’s traditional national channel—is perhaps the most significant NFL news in Britain this year.

Whilst more discerning fans will still tune to Sky Sports for access to US network coverage and commentary, the BBC should attract a healthy viewing audience, which can only be positive for the game in the UK.

But that can't be the end of the story.

Think of it like this:

Were I to enjoy a thrilling Super Bowl on the BBC—I imagine Clinton Portis finding Antwaan Randle-El in the end zone on an option play deep in the fourth quarter (a boy can dream)—why on earth would I be tempted to pay for a satellite subscription just to watch the Pro Bowl the following week...and then nothing else until September?

This is why it's essential that the NFL UK do everything it can to keep the game in the public domain during what is an unusually long offseason.

The first and most obvious method is to actively market Britain's domestic leagues. I wonder how many of the national papers will give more than a fleeting few lines to BritBowl XXI this weekend—if they even know it's happening, that is.

If they did, what kind of exposure would be given to the website

In the absence of NFL Europa, it would be criminal if the only time fans watched gridiron in the UK was on those occasions when the NFL plays regular season games outside the US.

And exposure is the key.

Brands and idols are the biggest sellers in any marketplace. The NFL used to have a branding edge in Britain. It doesn't anymore.

When I was growing up, even in a "soccer"-mad country, Art Monk was one of my heroes. The Raiders logo was one of the most sought-after posters for teenage bedroom walls across the UK, regardless of whether you knew what it was.

People remembered the "Diesel" chugging its way through Miami, and Marcus Allen pirouetting his way across the Rose Bowl. Commercially, the game was in the public domain—the "Bo Knows Football" ad campaign, for example, was one of the most popular of its type.

However, John Elway and Brett Favre were the last true NFL icons in Britain. As brilliant as Tom Brady, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Peyton Manning are, they aren't household names like their predecessors were.

It's no surprise that I had to purchase a Redskins jersey from the US because I couldn't find one out here. The NBA, by contrast, is immensely popular in the UK—largely because you can buy NBA merchandise everywhere you go.

Baseball is probably the best-covered American sport in Britain, and this is again a product of the New York Yankees' being possibly the biggest brand in world sport.

If it it wants to thrive, the NFL must find a way to market its brand to a new and lucrative audience.

The best option may be to increase television coverage in the offseason. As an NFL fan, I'd love to see broadcasts of the draft, training camps, and Hall of Fame inductions.

Nobody believes for a second that the National Football League sleeps for nine months—and given the kind of currency exchanged vis-à-vis television rights, it must be plausible for the league to grant coverage rights for important offseason events to its broadcaster of choice in the UK.

The National Football League has an enviable product. The globalisation of the game is already happening. All this column requests is the realisation that, for any minority brand to be successful, it must maximise both its impact and exposure.

Outside the US, in other words, football must become more than a September-to-January event.