Here to win: Expanding the NFL’s influence in Europe with the growth of avid fandom

Sameer Pabari, managing director, NFL International Media

From the US to London and now to Munich, the NFL International Series is making great headway on the continent and it is pushing plans for ever more growth of its fanbase on this side of the pond.

With regular season games already selling out Wembley and Tottenham Hotspur Stadiums, on 13 November in Munich, NFL Media is set to bring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers versus the Seattle Seahawks – along with all the excitement and pizzazz of American footie – to fans.

The cunning plan

On what the overall strategy is on growing NFL viewership in Europe, Sameer Pabari, managing director, NFL International Media, tells SVG Europe: “The cunning plan! First of all, I’d like to start off with just reiterating and reemphasizing the importance of international growth for the NFL. It’s an absolute strategic priority for the league as a whole, and I think we’re in a fortunate position given that we have in our domestic core market in the US, a long term arrangement in place with our players union, and our long term media deals locked in. It really gives us the ability to think strategically over the long term in terms of how to develop and how to grow.

“International is very much part of that, and one of the top strategic priorities. And I think the reason for that is that the next 50 million fans are really going to be coming from international markets, as opposed to the US, just given how big we already are in the US.”

NFL has 184 million fans aged eight years old and over in the US, and a further 216 million-plus fans internationally.

As to the end goal for the NFL’s growth in Europe, Pabari says it is all about onwards and upwards. “We definitely are in a real positive trajectory, and over the past few years we’ve built up real momentum, and we want to continue that growth. Our overall goal, and frankly the mission that anyone who works on the international side of the business signs up to, is to grow the popularity of the sport and the number of avid fans. So that’s really our primary objective, and I think if we get that right, then all other elements of what we’re trying to achieve, whether it’s number of kids playing sport, or audience engagement, or the commercial side of our business in international markets, those will all follow if we do a really, really good job in fandom.”

NFL strategy is focused on growing NFL viewership in Europe, says Sameer Pabari, managing director, NFL International Media. The NFL plays regualr season games at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in North London

Here to win

Pabari says that the overall mission for the NFL internationally is to grow avid fandom and increase the popularity of the sport overall in overseas markets, and it is being done on the back of three primary strands to the NFL’s strategy.

He notes: “The first is various initiatives to grow and deepen fandom. So for example, that would be our own international content marketing, often in local languages, often using local influencers. It’s bringing the NFL in some shape or form physically to international markets and that could be smaller scale events all the way up to hosting a regular season game, as we’ve been doing in the UK and Mexico for several years now, and taking a regular season game to Germany for the first time.”

Read more: NFL seeks a Bavarian rhapsody to grow German fanbase as it builds up to first International Series clash in the country

“We’re also working with our clubs and have granted them additional international marketing rights to be able to directly engage with fans in countries that they’re interested in. From our research, it’s not rocket science, but people really tend to engage with teams and players on teams, as opposed to leagues. So the first tranche of what we do is really about growing and deepening fandom.

“Then we also work really hard in terms of driving engagement, and that’s very much through media partnerships we have. But beyond media, it’s also reaching fans, particularly younger fans, through digital games such as Fortnight and Roblox and the partnerships that we have there, and also through sports betting for a particular segment of our fan base that like to place bets as well.

“And then finally, there’s a real push to actually grow the game itself from a playing and participation standpoint,” Pabari continues. “We work with partners in several countries to offer the non-contact version of the sport – flag football – to younger kids to introduce them to the game, all the way up to running what we call our international player pathway programme, where we are scouting top athletic talent who may not have played American football before, but we think have the requisite athletic skills and actually have a pathway to actually convert them from whatever sport that they were participating in, into training to become a player that could play in the NFL. So I’d say those are the three primary strands of our overall strategy, and within each of those, there are a number of initiatives that we focus on.”

Storming Germany

On the first upcoming regular season game ever being played in Germany on 13 November, Pabari states: “It’s been a long time coming, but really we’ve been working consistently to grow our fan base in Germany, both ourselves, and in conjunction with our media partners, to get to this point. And the demand has been absolutely outstanding, we’re really, really pleased with that. So very much looking forward to the game.”

“The reality is that most people will engage with the NFL, like they do with most sports, through broadcast in some way, shape or form”

The appetite for regular season NFL matches in Europe is definitely gaining a lot of traction. For the upcoming German game, on the day tickets went on sale there was a digital queue of over 800,000 people trying to get tickets, “and Ticketmaster have since told us that we could have sold three million tickets to that game alone,” notes Pabari.

Earlier this year the NFL opened an office in Germany, which is populated with locals who are concentrating on growing the German-speaking fab base on the ground. Comments Pabari: “I think the fact that we’ve now got a core team looking at Germany as locals, is really going to help accelerate our growth and enable us to reach the potential there more quickly, and actually grow what that potential could be. We will continue to work with fantastic media partners, our new media deals will see more content being delivered via DAZN and also RTL, our new media partner, across more platforms than ever before, with more shoulder programming, more localisation. So I think that’s really, really important in terms of being able to engage fans.”

Read more: All the bells and whistles: Delivering top flight NFL games with a European twist

When NFL brings a regular season game to the UK and now to Germany, it also brings with it the excitement and showmanship of the typical US-based NFL production. In Europe this translates to events and flag waving in the week around the game, aiming to generate interest and buzz.

“What we try and do when we bring games over here is really deliver the most authentic experience, and that’s what our fans enjoy, and why they’re coming to games,” says Pabari. “So even something like the announcers of the game, they’re American voices, they’re the same announcers that are calling a particular game in the US, and so we try and bring that level of entertainment and engagement for people in the stadium as much as we try and do that outside of the stadium through the quality of our broadcast production. That’s really part and parcel of the NFL experience, and why people come to games. In Germany it’s the first time we’re playing there, everyone is super excited about it in Munich so we will have obviously tailgating at the stadium, we have 14 NFL-branded pubs lined up. We have the NFL Flag National Championships happening in the city the week of the game. And we have also our NFL Academy, which is based in the UK now, recently moved to Loughborough through a partnership there, playing a Bavarian side the day before [the German match]. So what we’ve really tried to do is rather than just bringing a game, actually create a really fun experience around the NFL for the entire week.”

The NFL’s top markets in Europe at this point are the UK and Germany, but the game is also popular in France, Spain and the Nordic countries as well, particularly Sweden and Denmark, according to Pabari.

On the NFL set of Good Morning Football in October 2022, overlooking Tower Bridge, London

Broadcast partnerships

The NFL works with a range of different broadcast partners throughout Europe. In the UK it partners with most of the free to air broadcasters in some capacity, including ITV Sport which also broadcasts the Super Bowl, some of the London games, as well as a weekly magazine show that the NFL produces with ITV Sport. It also works with Channel 5, which broadcasts a Monday night game, and also produces a magazine show, and the BBC in terms of digital content and radio content.

“On top of that we also have the majority of our games broadcast via Sky, Sports, where a couple of years ago they launched a dedicated channel for the NFL – Sky Sports NFL – like they have with the Premier League, and with Formula One,” says Pabari. “That’s really driven a huge amount of growth.”

In Germany today, the NFL works with ProSieben as its free to air broadcaster, and DAZN, as its pay broadcaster. In Spain, it works with Telefonica. In the Nordics, it has different broadcasters in the different countries, so in Denmark, it’s TV3. In Sweden and Finland it works with the TV4 group, and in Norway, it’s VG. “Those are all fantastic partners, and working together with them they do a great job in terms of localising the sport, and helping us connect with fans across Europe” notes Pabari.

Continues Pabari: “The reality is that most people will engage with the NFL, like they do with most sports, through broadcast in some way, shape or form. From the research that we’ve done, we have solid fan base in all of the countries that I mentioned, and we reach them in conjunction with really strong media partnerships. That’s where we’ve seen growth, and that’s where we see room for further growth in terms of fandom.”

On the NFL’s overall strategy as it relates to media distribution, he notes: “What we try and do is to create a media funnel to really give us the ability to reach the broadest possible fan base, and over time, convert them into more avid fans.

“And so in that funnel, as we describe it, there are typically three tiers. At the top end, you’ve got free to air broadcast and social. And there, it’s really about broad reach, that people may have some interest in the NFL, they may not know a huge amount about it, they may be drawn to it by Super Bowl, or the halftime show in the Super Bowl. But that layer is important to us in terms of building awareness of sport and a basic understanding.

“Then we typically also like to work with a pay TV partner that has already aggregated a group of people who love sports generally. And we very much believe in the power of being part of a strong bundle. And then, at the bottom of the funnel, for our most avid fans, we have our own streaming service called Game Pass. And there, that product offers everything that the NFL produces, in terms of games, in terms of our 24/7 linear channel NFL Network, and the full plethora of film and documentary programming that we produce as well. So for anyone that’s looking to support a particular team, week in, week out, or to just consume as much NFL content as they can, Game Pass is where they go to fill their boots.”

Social is key

Pabari comments on how important social and OTT outreach for the NFL in getting to new viewers across Europe. “Social is absolutely key. Obviously, younger fans or younger individuals in the country are typically going to be engaging with more content on the likes of YouTube and the social platforms, versus someone my age, for example. So we definitely tailor our approach to catering to the different tastes and media consumption that you see across different demos. We really try to be wherever individuals are choosing to consume content, so we partner with all of the major digital video and social platforms. So for example, we’ve got a long standing partnership with YouTube, which is global in nature, and that’s where our highlights are published, as soon as the game is finished, a few minutes later, for free for anyone that’s interested to consume. More recently, given the growth of TikTok, that’s been a partnership that we’ve engaged with a lot more.

“Sometimes we produce stuff under our own steam, with our own handles, and sometimes we partner with influencers that really care passionately about the NFL, and we partner with them in order to reach their users. But what’s important there is to make sure that it’s fully authentic, and you’re not trying to get someone to push our brand or our sport where they don’t really care for it or like it, because I think that would just come across. So I think social is super, super important.

“Then actually from an over the top (OTT) standpoint – putting to one side that we’ve got our own OTT service, which is really geared towards the more avid fans that are already into the NFL – as media consumption changes more broadly, then the media partners that we work with are often shifting their strategies in order to reach their customers and audiences in new and different ways.

“So if I take one of our key partners across Europe – DAZN – who we work with in both Germany and Italy, that is a pure streaming service, and as a result of that I think that they’re reaching a younger demo who haven’t necessarily been traditional pay TV subscribers before. But even in terms of our new Germany deals, I mentioned that right now we work with ProSieben and DAZN in Germany, and then from the 2023 season we’re actually changing our free-to-air partner and we’re working with RTL. As part of that deal, not only do they have the rights to broadcast games on their traditional linear channels, but they also have the ability to have an exclusive game on their OTT service, RTL+.

“So that’s an example of traditional media companies also trying to reach audiences and fans in new ways. And that’s really the strength of our partnership, we’re quite flexible. We tend not to do short-term, tactical deals, we’re really looking for deep strategic partnerships that can help us grow,” concludes Pabari.

Seattle Seahawks vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers takes place on 13 November 2022 at the Allianz Arena

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