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All Eyes on a London Franchise

It’s Super Bowl week, and once again the Patriots are in the mix, this time facing the Eagles – the regular season’s best team. The recent Divisional round of matches served up the very best of what NFL has to offer as a sport: the four matches featured an heroic goal-line stop in the last minute, a Super Bowl dynasty rolling on, an underdog team famed for their defence coming out on top of an 87-point shootout, and one of the most dramatic endings ever seen.Before the current one is finished, attention in London already turns to the 2018 season, with the latest round of International Series fixtures recently unveiled.

The 2018 Series will see six teams travel to London, playing matches at Wembley and, for the first time, Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium. This will bring the total number of teams to have played in London to 29, with only the Packers, Panthers and Texans yet to play here. With 21 matches played to date, an average stadium attendance of over 82,000 and a host of international partners, the future of the Series seems in rude health.

At a time when the league is facing tests from injured superstars (in particular, head injuries and concussions), player protests and an aggrieved President, the NFL continues to be extremely popular in the UK: 20 of the 21 matches hosted in London have been sell-outs and the NFL claims to have three million ‘avid’ (once-a-week) fans in the UK. Broadcast and highlights packages across Sky Sports and BBC are becoming more sophisticated in their delivery, and the relaunch of the NFL Game Pass has shown willingness from the NFL to innovate their broadcast offering.

Since the first International Series match in 2007, a solid UK fanbase including ‘big eventers’ and ‘sports tourists’ has been built, but educating the wider UK public is a crucial step in the NFL’s expansion plans. As the novelty of regular season matches and the opportunity to see new teams diminishes, so the appetite for meaningful matches in London and the UK grows. Although the 2017 fixtures did not look thrilling on paper (ending up rather one-sided affairs), there were over 40,000 ‘season ticket holders’ who bought tickets to each match.

The success of visiting sides may help the prospects of attracting them to participate in the International Series, with each match winner in 2017 reaching the Playoffs; however, there is still a reluctance from teams to surrender a precious home game (teams currently have eight home fixtures per season). The Jaguars, Rams and Raiders have given up home matches in 11 of the 23 International Series matches and it is unlikely that the Rams or Raiders will be keen to surrender a home match once their Inglewood and Las Vegas stadiums open in 2020.

If rumours are to be believed, the NFL is in planning mode for a London-based franchise, with both the NFL and the UK Government seemingly receptive to a full-time team. As the popularity of some teams in the USA wanes (Browns) and stadium leases expire (Panthers), the possibility becomes ever more plausible. The Jaguars appear to be the most likely franchise to relocate, as their owner Shahid Khan is based in London and the team have committed to hosting a match at Wembley Stadium until 2020. That said, their stadium lease at EverBank Field runs through to 2030, so it is difficult to see them relocating completely just yet.

There are obvious logistical concerns about a London-based franchise, including the issue of travel, UK tax laws and employment laws impacting the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (a labour agreement between the players’ association (NFLPA) and the NFL). As it stands, it is unclear how the NFLPA would feel about a London franchise, and there is a chance that when the new CBA is negotiated, a London franchise could be vetoed by the players. Mark Waller, NFL VP of International, believes that an East Coast base could alleviate a lot of the player concerns, and that any issues can be ironed out before the next CBA is negotiated in 2021.

As a casual follower of the sport, I’d welcome a London franchise with open arms and would look forward to a team that NFL fans in the UK can claim as their own. The UK fanbase will surely only increase with the opportunity to actively support a team, rather than following the sport, which would open up further commercial opportunities. For obvious reasons, a London franchise would need to be competitive, which is a very difficult thing to achieve when starting from scratch, and there will be concern that a permanent franchise could lose its novelty quickly if results don’t go their way.

The UK talent pipeline is crucial for securing interest amongst younger demographics, and the presence of Jay Ajayi and Jermaine Eluemunor at the Eagles and Ravens respectively should strengthen interest in the sport domestically. Since 2008, the University league (BUAFL) has expanded to 83 teams and doubled the number of players, buoyed by an official association with the NFL, whilst amateur participation levels have grown by 15% each year for the past decade. The increasing opportunities for overseas players, such as the International Player Pathway, may contribute to UK-based athletes converting to American Football, as evidenced by the likes of Alex Gray – a former England 7s player, who is now on the Falcons’ roster.

It is worth remembering that the participation increase is taking place from a very small base and not everyone in the UK is enamoured by the glitz and the glamour of the NFL. YouGov recently revealed that 59% of those surveyed found the sport quite or very boring and in an already busy market place, watching NFL might be a relatively disposable leisure activity. The relocation of NFL teams into the Los Angeles market has been far from straightforward and this is a city where American Football is ubiquitous. The same can’t be said of London.

Yet.

What Can UK Sponsors Learn From US Sports and a Physicist and Astronomer?

Synergy’s recent launch in the US got me wondering whether sports marketers closer to home could learn from America’s love for stats. My search for an answer unveiled some unexpected sources of inspiration and insight. This blog shares them and, in doing so, shows the answer to my question is a resounding YES.
Say the word “statistics” and memories of miserable maths lessons are what flood back for most of us. Yet today, US sports fans and coaches LOVE data. Broadcasters ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports and NBC Sports are feeding fans, via their websites, with a constant flow of facts and figures in every American sport going. The traditional Big Four – NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB – are perhaps the most stat-heavy sports on the planet.

So why are US sports fans and coaches today so hungry for data? Perhaps the answer can be traced back to the US in 1950, when physicist and astronomer Professor Arpad E. Elo introduced a system to rank the world's chess players. Elo’s approach has since been adopted and adapted by sports organisations, especially in the US. FiveThirtyEight, for example, use it to predict future NFL performance. In brief, using analysis of past performance and a bit of maths, his system has been used and adapted to estimate and rank the future performance of players and teams, and in doing so has come to the attention of sports fans globally.

The power and popularity of Elo’s approach among fans lies in how it can arm them with data to help win debates with fellow fans, and potentially even cold hard cash through betting. DraftKings, which gives gamers (gamblers?) sports research before they ‘play’ is both enormously popular and controversial in the US. Whatever you think of it, it may not be long before DraftKings is the latest US to UK import. Subjectivity and gut instinct no longer rule fantasy transfer decisions and heated half-time debates. The popularity of FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo Rankings is just one example of how the appetite for data among US sports fans is being met. Closer to home, @AccentureRugby’s analysis of the RBS 6 Nations is an equally compelling case of how data is changing sport.

Snapshot from FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo Rankings 

Player turned manager Billy Beane attracted criticism when he started using sabermetrics to make decisions on trades, rosters and the like at Oakland Athletics baseball team. Success ensued on the pitch to such an extent that in 2009 Sports Illustrated placed Beane in their Top 10 sporting GMs/Executives of the Decade, and in 2011, Moneyball, with Brad Pitt playing Beane, hit the screens to critical acclaim. Whether it be sabermetrics in baseball or mathematical modelling at Brentford FC or FC Midtjyjlland, data in coaching decisions is here to stay. Data has become integral to decision-making and debate. Why? In sport, data helps you win.Data is integral to decision-making in business too. How many CEOs and CMOs do you think invest in multi-million £ or $ campaigns with no view on expected return on investment (ROI) vs. viable investment alternatives? To prove the point with data (I couldn’t help myself!), recent research from Millward Brown Vermeer’s Insights 2020 showed 51% of over-performing companies said “Insights & Analytics Leads the Business” vs. a 27% for global average. In business, data helps you win.

The lesson for sports marketers? Yes, you guessed it – data can help you win. Sports fans and coaches realised long ago data can deliver success. The title of sports marketing’s answer to Billy Beane is still open to applications but – with such high financial gains to be made – it’s only a matter of time until the vacancy is filled.

 

If you want to chat about ROI in sponsorship or anything to do with sponsorship measurement and evaluation, please do send Synergy an email at tom.gladstone@synergy-sponsorship.com and, if you haven’t already, take a look at how Synergy think about sponsorship value in our white paper here.

Full Stream Ahead: How Yahoo’s Partnership With The NFL Is An Opportunity For Sponsors

While Jacksonville Jaguars’ 34-31 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Wembley Stadium in late October belied fans' modest expectations of a drab affair from two of the NFL's smaller teams, the fixture itself had far more significance for the future of NFL broadcasting and potential sponsorship opportunities
The game was played at Wembley as part of the Jaguars' four year deal to play one 'home' regular season fixture in London. The location of the game is no longer newsworthy, but the way the NFL broadcast it was.With a fixture between two sides with little hope of making the end of season play-offs, and an unfriendly kick-off time of 6.30am WT/9.30am ET in the U.S., it represented an opportunity for the NFL to trial something new. As a result, they signed an exclusive partnership with Yahoo to digitally deliver the game to fans around the world for free on any device.

The deal represented the first time the NFL has partnered with a company to live stream a regular season game globally and Yahoo paid an estimated $20m for the privilege. The deal came in light of a report from The New York Post that over the last four years the number of young adults in the U.S. who watch traditional prime-time TV has fallen by nearly 20 percent, whilst subscription streaming grew 22 percent in 2014 alone. These insights mean the NFL, as well as its partners, should try to adopt new ways of engaging with their highly lucrative, target audience.

For Yahoo, the game was a greater risk as they had to prove that their platform could keep up with increased traffic. Although there were perhaps inevitable buffering issues, results indicate that they did.

According to Yahoo, 15.2 million people overall watched some or all of the game, which in terms of web streaming a live event, is a significant number.

Although these stats pale in comparison to the viewership of a typical NFL game (Fox and CBS average around 20 million viewers for their Sunday afternoon games), Yahoo’s example of success could mean that when the NFL comes to renew its broadcast deals there may be new bidders at the table. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the likes of Apple, Google and Netflix enter the bidding process, leaving the NFL in the happy predicament of a greater number of distributors to negotiate with.

So, what could it mean for advertisers and sponsors?

Synergy’s Chief Strategy Officer Carsten Thode’s blog on the issue of “protectionism” in U.S. sponsorships highlighted that brands are contractually obligated to commit to a minimum media spend as part of their deal, meaning advertising is therefore a driving force in leading a brand’s sponsorship campaign.

Despite Yahoo offering brands a different platform on which to activate, advertising was still the way brands targeted their consumers as the stream attracted approximately 30 advertisers. However, according to a Sports Journal report, this was only achieved as they dropped their rates from around $200,000 to $50,000 for a 30 second spot.

Significantly, advertisers were also given the option of choosing either a global or U.S. only audience for its inventory, allowing Yahoo to display two adverts at the same time depending on where you watched the game from. However, the UK stream appeared to just showcase U.S. adverts, suggesting that brands either missed an opportunity to geo-target audiences or weren’t interested in engaging the audience outside the U.S.

Such opportunities occur in international football or "soccer" as rightsholders, such as the Football Association, maximise revenues by using technology to virtually replace pitch side hoardings depending on where the game is broadcast. Perhaps with a more diverse and global audience, football is ahead of its over-the-pond namesake regarding opportunities such as these.

Of the 30 advertisers who brought a Yahoo advertising slot, three were sponsors of both the NFL and the NFL International Series, which would already give them the right to activate their sponsorship around the game both in the U.S. and in the UK.

But despite the NFL conducting their annual Regent Street event in London and having a ‘Game Day Fan Plaza’, outside of Wembley none of these brands activated their sponsorship in any way. Similarly, during the live stream in the UK, there was little sponsor integration into the live feed which seems a missed opportunity.

It appears to be an easy win for brands to target fans in game, for example, by offering fans a chance to vote for the play of the game or the opportunity to select their favourite players for the Pro Bowl.In Carsten's blog, our research indicated that around half the people under 35 constantly checked their social media channels during a live game and, by making a game only available on what is normally a fans second screen, the NFL have shown a willingness to trial new ideas. However, are its streaming partner and sponsors missing a trick by not engaging them further? Or was it perhaps the case that by broadcasting directly on the 'second screen', brands believed they were taking away the fans ability to engage directly with them, alongside their viewing experience?

Of course there will be teething issues as rightsholders and sponsors adjust to how viewers consume sporting coverage and, with the traditional television broadcast deals set to stay in place until 2022 at the very earliest, brands may be reluctant to change the status quo for one-off instances such as the Yahoo deal. But with a rightsholder who, at the very least, is showing an appetite to adapt to viewing habits, those brands bold enough to take up this opportunity to try may find greater rewards.

NFL Fantasy Football – A Missed Opportunity?

The beginning of September is like Christmas for many American Football fans, as the time for talking ends and the road to the Super Bowl begins. However, while teams were frantically finalising their 53-man rosters and practice squads in preparation, fans were busy too as they looked to create a team that would beat their colleagues and friends in NFL Fantasy Football.

nfl-fantasy-440

For the uninitiated, the American Football version of Fantasy Football differs greatly to the round ball equivalent most play over here. Instead of a free-for-all with managers picking the same players for their teams, the American Football version mirrors real life with a NFL Draft ensuring each manager has to adopt a strategy in order to gain a competitive advantage against his league rivals.

With every single player available for selection (including those that are no longer active such as controversial Quarter Back Tim Tebow), the draft forces team allegiances to be put to one side as fantasy managers look to develop a team and strategy to emerge victorious.

As a fairly recent convert to the Gridiron, I was invited to take part in my first NFL Fantasy Football Draft and while my knowledge is limited, it represented a great chance to learn more about the league and players outside of my team, the San Francisco 49ers.

While football fantasy managers have until the first game of the Premier League over here (although nothing stops you entering later) to select a team on their own, the American Football version requires all participants to join a league – you can’t actually play individually – to take part in a draft together.

League commissioners (think League Chairman over here) organise a draft time and managers can either choose to take part themselves or simply use auto pick which takes the highest rank player available each round.

However, the biggest surprise I found wasn’t that someone took the Houston Texans defence in the sixth round, but that the entire process seemed completely devoid of any brands outside the NFL. In a sport and country that is highly commercialised, brands are missing out on a great opportunity to connect with American Football fans.

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), approximately 33 million people play Fantasy Football in the US each year, with 49% paying to play through league fees, subscription advice sites and analytics apps, spending on average $468 a year - a truly staggering figure.

Although brands such as Volkswagen, who commit $3 million in fantasy football sponsorships with CBS, and Lenovo, who produce content around Fantasy Football as part of their official computer partnership with the NFL, activate around fantasy football, no brand really owns this space.

Given that Fantasy Football managers are keen to access the latest information and are willing to pay for it, it's strange that there hasn’t been a similar sort of platform to IBM’s Try Tracker, which is used during the RBS 6 Nations (in conjunction with the Daily Telegraph), that’s free and accessible to fans.

The NFL’s Fantasy Football offering is partnered by Lenovo, who do provide the ‘Fantasy Coaches Corner’, but while this does provide some tips and highlights successful managers, it doesn’t feel like an immersive platform that offers something for both the hard-core and casual fan. Similarly, the partnership between Volkswagen and CBS Sports offers more of the same, and while the content is perfectly fine, it doesn’t offer enough variety to ensure participants use their website rather than a competitor's.

Much like any sporting organisation, the NFL has a long list of sponsors covering all areas from cereal to data storage. With Fantasy Football such a huge part of the NFL, surely a natural extension would be for one brand to become the official NFL stats provider and then link them to Fantasy Football. This would ensure they create further brand awareness – especially when you consider the rise of TV consumption on two screens i.e. fans watch while playing on a phone or tablet.

The Fantasy Football market will only continue to grow, especially as fans in new markets such as the UK embrace the idea. Currently UK fans can play either the original, American versions which contain the draft system or the NFL UK version which is presented by Sky Sports - mainly due to their ownership of the broadcasting rights for the majority of games.

However, the UK version loses some of the appeal generated by its across-the-pond rivals as it tries too hard to simplify the process and mimic the soccer version here with a salary cap. While it's admirable they are trying to cater to the UK market, the majority of fans who play Fantasy Football associate the process with the American versions, and as a result take part in US based offerings.

But what US brands have seemingly neglected is that with more fans, both domestically and internationally, comes greater opportunities for brands to reach new consumers. It’s certainly an area worth exploring, as the US advertising revenues on Fantasy Football sites are estimated to bring in $2 – $5 billion annually and with every player having to participate in the draft, taking ownership could prove lucrative for any brand bold enough.