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  • Writer's pictureNic Makepeace

The three ways the NFL interacts with their global audience digitally and what teams can learn

This season more than ever most American fans will be watching the NFL much like their international counterparts - at home. Of course they won’t be staying up late like the Europeans or waking up early like the Chinese - but they will get an idea of the experience of an international fan following from home. As the NFL and its teams look to expand globally, it is vital for teams to understand this international fan experience if they wish to capitalise on this massive opportunity for international growth. To understand this, it’s important to look at the three key ways that the NFL has used to engage its global audience digitally: i) Growing Commercial Partnerships ii) Building Digital Communities and iii) More coverage through Broadcaster Deals.

1. Growth of commercial partnerships Although some markets may not be ready to fully commercialise, more established markets such as the UK and Germany are leading the way when it comes to local commercial partnerships. For the league a particularly interesting area will be the development of sports betting partners, with the UK partnering with 888Sport this season.

Alongside this partnership, 888Sport will also be producing a weekly video series called ‘The Punt’, which will see a celebrity panel discuss the major talking points throughout the season, which shows their commitment to the NFL market in the UK. This partnership coupled with NFL Deutschland’s relationship with SkyBet shows the commercial viability of these markets, which I’m sure we will see grow over the coming years. When it comes to teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars have led the way internationally with their partnership with Lycamobile, which digitally has seen Lycamobile sponsor ‘Jaguars Jam’, an online weekly press conference that features a star Jaguars player answering questions from UK media and fans.

Seven League and Mailman Take The increase in betting partnerships with the league itself coupled with the Jacksonville Jaguars work in the UK with Lycamobile shows that there is certainly an appetite for brands to partner with teams who show a commitment to their local market. With the NFL rumoured to be working on a marketing and sponsorship program for teams in 2021, this could be the start of many similar sponsorship deals internationally.

2. Building digital communities Being part of a digital community has become an essential part of following the NFL from abroad. The combination of there often being no physical location to attend with other fans, whether that’s the stadium or a bar, as well as football being a niche sport globally means that online is where most fans find their community. Whether it’s fan owned communities, localised team channels or the official NFL channels - digital communities are a vital place for local fans to learn about the sport, find others with a similar interest and discuss the latest news, especially on gameday. The NFL UK has led the way in this space digitally, attracting over 1 million followers across their channels through adopting a highly engaging, youth-focused tone of voice that aims to attract new fans and entertain current fans at the same time by highlighting the stars of the game and big moments. A large part of that success building digital communities has come in the form of their Facebook Group, which now runs itself and has been an active forum for local fans. For teams, an even more community focused approach is key. With our work with the Minnesota Vikings running their localised UK and German channels, our main focus is on building these communities through content focused on amplifying our own fan’s voices and encouraging discussion between themselves. As part of our season launch campaign, we asked fans (including the local fan club in Germany) for their predictions ahead of the season.

This approach helped to educate our local fans ahead of the upcoming season, whilst also sparking debate between them and amplifying their voice to their own community.

Seven League and Mailman Take

Building and owning these digital communities presents a huge opportunity for NFL teams, as this is where the core fanbase resides and where new fans can be reached. This sense of community is particularly important in Germany where the sense of community is deeply embedded in their sporting culture, as my colleague Max Baier wrote about in his article: ‘What US Sports are missing to win big in Germany’. As the competition grows internationally between teams building and owning that local digital community has never been more important, as it will allow for teams to successfully serve sponsors digitally in a targeted way in the long-term.

3. More coverage through broadcaster deals

Broadcaster deals that give the sport more coverage to more people are key for the growth of the NFL internationally and we have seen a wide variety of markets engage in such deals. No more so than in the UK where Sky Sports has launched a channel entirely dedicated to the NFL, the free-to-air Channel 5 now has two NFL-based shows and the BBC will continue to host the NFL Show with Mark, Osi and Jason.

The creation of a channel dedicated to the sport, as well as continued free-to-air coverage is a huge coup and will allow fans various ways to watch. Moreover, there is also a dedicated OTT platform in NFL Game Pass which provides localised content for the more dedicated UK fans through their condensed game offering and the content produced by the ‘Around the NFL’ podcast team, who have proved to be extremely popular in the UK. Similarly in France, free-to-air channel L’Equipe has secured the rights to show one regular season game per week as well as the Super Bowl, which is a massive step forward for the game in France where pay-TV BeIN Sports previously had the rights.

Another market where the NFL has taken a significant step in their content and product journey is in China, where Tencent Sports has launched their first ever subscription package. This package will feature all games - live, condensed and via Redzone, NFL selected original programming, as well as Chinese & English commentary. With the recent uncertainty for international sports properties in China, this represents a positive step for the growth of the game in China, particularly due to the comprehensive nature of the offering and the very competitive price point that it’s offered at.

Seven League and Mailman Take

The development of the UK broadcast market with Sky Sports NFL, in Germany with ‘ran NFL’ and in China with Tencent Sports reflects the growth of the game internationally in the past few years. Get ready to see less developed markets such as France continue to increase the amount of local coverage of the NFL.

These three key tenets of commercial partnerships, digital communities and broadcaster deals will be important to watch as the NFL looks to grow internationally. And with this growth comes a massive opportunity for NFL teams to get ahead of the curve and start capitalising on the increased coverage of the game by building digital communities, which in years to come can become a key part of local commercial partnerships.

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