Translations of this article are also available in the following languages:Italiano
As part of my dissertation on the NFL’s future in Europe, I reached out to The Growth of a Game founder Travis Brody to discuss the topic. The interview gave me further insight into the NFL’s long-term strategies in Europe regarding brand extension, consumer communication, marketing, and business planning.
What follows is the original interview, in full:
Currently with the NFL becoming a global brand through the popularity of the game worldwide and the international series, do you feel than an expansion globally through international leagues or expansion teams is in the future for the brand? And if so, will this be successful?
The NFL has thus far shown zero indication that they are interested in creating expansion franchises. Their current structural model is mathematically balanced: 32 teams, two conferences of 16 teams a piece, four divisions of 4 teams within each conference, competing in 16 games a season. The league also feels that capping the number of teams allows it to keep the level of play high, which it would be sacrificing if it were to introduce expansion teams that would potentially dilute the talent pool.
The league has also shown no interest in supporting other international leagues, in part because that would essentially be aiding potential competition, partly because other leagues are a mixed bag in terms of stability and professionalism, and in large part due to the fact that it is not the NFL’s modus operandi to facilitate the development of the sport. It is their objective to expand the brand itself on a global scale, something it achieves by holding regular season games abroad and through television and media.
With a number of sports brands in Europe such as football/soccer leagues and further sports such as rugby and cricket, do you feel there is an opportunity for the NFL to expand into this market?
Absolutely. The NFL’s presence, and that of American football in general, has increased exponentially over the past 20 years. The sports industry continues to grow, and American football in particular offers an alternative to other traditional European sports. The NFL has virtually a monopoly on many of the best athletes in the world, not to mention an unparalleled ability to provide entertainment value to its fans. These are elements that resonate well with European fans.
What strategy and entry methods would the brand need to take to expand into the European market?
Further presence on television is number one, in my opinion. The NFL’s growing presence in Europe is in direct correlation with its appearance on television. This has stood true for the game’s strong appeal in countries like the United Kingdom and Italy, where the game grew drastically during the 1980’s in both countries due to the league’s appearance on television. When the sport was pulled from television during the 1990’s, the sport saw a significant decline in each. Now that the game is becoming more readily available on television and via online streaming, the sport is again growing at a rapid pace.
With the launch of the NGL in Australia, creating another professional league to compete with the NFL and the CFL, do you feel more international professional leagues will begin to operate as the game expands? Is this something that the NFL should take into consideration when expanding?
I do feel that additional professional leagues will become more prevalent over the next 5-10 years. However, I’ve yet to observe any upcoming league that poses a direct threat to either the NFL or CFL. The NFL considers every possible scenario when it enters a new market – far more than anyone could envision. Aside from the obvious issues such as transportation and foreign taxes, the NFL spends a sizeable amount of time considering even small issues such as what food options will be available to players or the difference in electrical voltage abroad. The NFL leaves no stone unturned.
What would an NFL expansion team based in London or another European location mean to both the brand and the location? Alongside this what issues would be created through this expansion?
It would give the NFL a permanent foundation in Europe. It would send the message that the NFL is here to stay and that the league is intending to invest in the European market over the long-term.
Issues are countless, but not a single one of them is insurmountable. These issues include, but are not limited to: time and distance, lack of immediate competitiveness by a team that moves abroad, filling a stadium 8 times per year, hesitation of top players to play outside of the United States, taxes, salaries, salary caps, previous experience (i.e. NFL Europe), and many more.
What marketing techniques does the NFL need to take into account in order to expand into Europe?
The main thing that the NFL needs is to have a consistent presence in Europe. American football continues to grow organically in Europe, so long as the NFL has a steady presence. The league also needs to be transparent about the risks of repeated concussions as well as the steps it is taking to make the game safer.
What areas of Europe should the NFL be aiming their expansion at?
London is definitely number one. It’s an easily accessible location for people all over Europe and is one of the cultural and financial capitals of Europe. There is a sizeable fan base there and it is also an appealing destination for European fans to see their favorite team play.
The next viable location would be Germany. There are too many places in Germany where a team would be viable – Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Munich, Cologne, etc. Germany‘s location in the center of Europe makes it accessible to other European fans and the strength of the fan base in Germany is powerful enough to support an NFL team regardless of which city it would settle in. This, however, is not something the NFL will pursue for at least another 15 years.
Would an expansion or developmental league be feasible in Europe? What issues would the brand face in this venture and what would be required of the brand?
The NFL has zero interest in establishing an expansion or developmental league – that has been attempted before with mixed results. Their primary objective is to expand the presence of the NFL itself rather than operating a developmental league which requires further bandwidth. Access to new media has enabled the NFL to expand its presence without the need for a developmental league abroad.
Does the UK and European market fit with the NFL brand and its values?
Each country has its own respective cultural differences, so it is difficult to assess European culture as a whole. However, the NFL prides itself on providing an authentic American experience, something that is not only sought after in Europe, but is also in short supply. The NFL has been and continues to be cognizant of cultural norms in other countries, however it also wants to emphasize the aspects that make the sport distinctly American – in particular the spectacular nature of the games themselves.
What changes in trends or other factors need to change within the European market for the NFL to effectively expand into Europe?
Establishing an NFL franchise in Europe and providing continued access to NFL games via television or online streaming are the two most vital objectives for the league. The appeal of the sport is high enough in itself, so the key is simply to introduce it to a wider audience.
Does the NFL require a heavier brand presence in the UK and Europe before a serious expansion into the market can be undertaken?
The NFL believes it does. They’re heavily focused on the UK market as their next big venture, so there are studies being conducted to evaluate fan interest in the NFL. I believe they’re ready to move a franchise to London now, but the league wants more time to continue to grow the market in the UK and convince owners of the viability of a London franchise before they make the full-time leap. It’s a sound business plan, and when the time comes to move a team to London its success will be an afterthought.
Would playing for a European-based franchise or in a European developmental league be attractive for players?
Using London as an example, I feel that it would be an attractive location for a lot of players. Any athletes who want to further expand their personal growth and learn about a different culture will find the appeal in it. London offers a unique cultural opportunity that no other current NFL city can provide.
Most players are happy just to be in the NFL. It’s incredibly difficult to make and stay on an NFL roster, so few players have the luxury of being that selective with teams. There are ultimately some players who would prefer not to be that far from home, however the city would conversely appeal to the players who want more out of their NFL experience.
How does the sports market differ from general business markets? And how does this effect the NFL?
Sports are the original reality programming. They also allow for heroes and role models, something that other businesses can’t compete with. The loyalty that exists for sports teams far exceeds the loyalty of that of almost any brand on earth.
The NFL has unique athletes and personalities and its disposal, and the drama surrounding each game is something that the league uses to its advantage.
Is a heavier European presence among NFL players needed to aid the popularity of the brand in Europe?
It doesn’t hurt, by any means. These are world class athletes and when they compete at the highest level it is entertaining to watch. This resonates with any culture.
Is the brand reputation important to the success and expansion of the business?
Definitely, and the league works tirelessly to maintain a good reputation with its fans. It hasn’t been perfect and there are a lot of moving parts, but in spite of all the difficulties it faces I believe the league has done an exceptional job of maintaining a solid reputation. That said, when it enters a new market it won’t carry the same amount of baggage that it does in the United States. It will be mainly perceived as a highly successful league keen on investing in the European market. European fans will establish their own personal opinions about the league based on their experience when that time comes.
How has the brand been effected globally by the concussion issue and the negative actions of some high profile players off the field?
The league’s reputation has certainly been tarnished, there’s no doubt. However I think that most fans are reasonable and they already knew that the sport increases the likelihood of concussions. This is a risk with any sport, and some sports pose an even higher concussion risk than American football. It’s a sacrifice we make to compete in team sports, but it is a calculated one. The values that the sport of American football provides athletes are exceptional.
The NFL certainly does not hold a monopoly on negative actions by its players. The NBA, NFL, EPL, NHL, and just about any other professional league has dealt with high-profile cases of bad judgment or criminal activity by one or more of its players. In the end, these players are people too and they make mistakes at the same rate of incidence as any other person in the world. Giving them a high salary and telling them they’re important doesn’t prevent someone from making the wrong decisions. In the end, your true character always shines through.
Bret Margieson is a guest contributor from Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. He began following football in his early childhood, when he became a fan of the Minnesota Vikings. Bret graduated Buckinghamshire New University, with First Class Honors in Business and Sports Management, led by his dissertation and in-depth study on the growth of the NFL and American Football within the UK. You can reach him via his Twitter handle at (@margieson13).