By Jack Bechta, National Football Post
While attending the NFL London games the last several years, I noticed on the subway that European fans were wearing jerseys from many different NFL teams. So I decided to ask them how they became fans. To my surprise, many of them discovered NFL football in three ways: While attending college in the states, while living/working in the states for a short period, and by picking the games up on satellite and watching them with American friends abroad. None of the Europeans I spoke to last year became fans because of the London game itself.
Marc Reeves, NFL International Commercial Director, told me at a conference last month that he does have a gargantuan task selling the NFL product abroad. He said to me, “my team and I have the job of pushing the boulder up the mountain. Our gains may not be noticeable but they are there and it will take some time to be significant.” Yes it will! Most likely, it may take ten to twenty years to build a mass fan base.
Although the London game itself is the tent pole for selling the NFL product abroad, much more has to be done on a grass roots level to create a real and ever lasting interest abroad.
Some Europeans I met became NFL fans from their exposure to NFL Europe. The Europe league didn’t make the large-scale impact the NFL hoped it would, however, it was still cultivating and educating fans. Several fans told me they would go just to see the cheerleaders, do the wave and watch the kicks. Yes, that’s right, the kicks and punts were the most popular plays to many foreign fans. Most Europeans grew up kicking a soccer or rugby ball so it’s a skill they appreciate and can relate to. The loudest cheers I ever heard at the NFL Europe games I attended were always associated with kicks and punts.
Having the London game does attract fans from all over Europe. Although the stadium is usually full, many tickets are bought by businesses and then given to their employees. Wembley is an impressive venue but because of its size and dimensions the seats are a lot further away then most NFL stadiums so the fan experience is not an intimate as you would get at a Packers game. So I feel the game there doesn’t truly represent the feeling of the traditional NFL game. Not to mention, most attendees will take the subway (or shall I say the tube), so there is a lack of tailgating, which is half the fun and experience of an NFL game.
So how can the NFL farm more fans abroad?
Win over the foreign students going to school in the USA. There are roughly 700,000 new foreign college students who enroll each year in our country’s universities. Help them adopt and learn the basics of football. Get them directed to NFL websites in many languages with a Rosetta Stone type leaning method. Have football 101 books available in the student bookstore. It’s a win-win for both, they want to be accepted, meet people, experience our culture and feel like they belong. If they embrace the game, they will then teach their friends and families back home and recruit more consumers of the game.
Leverage the international Rugby fan base: The closest sport to football, played around the world, with the largest fan base is Rugby. Rugby fans may be the path of least resistance to building an audience abroad. By giving more tryouts to Rugby players like Hayden Smith, and having exchange programs for players between NFL teams and Rugby clubs would create immediate interest. Furthermore, there is a lot each sport can learn from each other. Additionally, if the Saracens of Premiership League adopts the Jets and the Jets adopt the Saracens, both can introduce each other to their respective fan bases. Rugby fans cannot be bought but they can be earned. If you show them a genuine interest in their sport or team, they will reciprocate the same. In addition, the NFL can learn a lot from Rugby in terms of building team chemistry, and conditioning and training.
Clinics and camps in the off-season. In order for this to work, there has to be boots on the ground in foreign soil. Send our coaches and players to different countries every year. For example; send Bears players to countries such as Poland because there are over 1.5 million people of Polish decent living in Chicago who are most likely Bears fans. Having media eyes on a beast like Urlacher is sure to make an unforgettable impact on the locals. Players and coaches will love a paid vacation to different countries to talk and teach football.
TV: I admit that I am not fully versed on how foreign TV deals and rights work but I do know that the world is getting smaller and access to any content you want can be had on an a la carte basis most anywhere in the world. The NFL has to give the product away for free at first. Foreigners won’t pay to watch a sport they don’t understand and don’t like sitting through commercials for sporting events. The concept of a TV time out is alien to them. The NFL can still profit by copying how soccer leveraging in game advertising methods.
Contests and smaller venues: The NFL should consider having a punting and kicking contest a few days before every London game. It can be hosted and judged by each team’s punters, kickers and special teams coaches. The winner will win 10,000 euros or pounds and a tryout with an NFL team. This contest may actually generate more excitement and attention than the game itself. I also think the NFL should look at having games abroad played at smaller venues to emulate a true NFL experience.
I travel to Europe every summer and have visited over 27 countries. When I get into discussions about my job, which then leads to American football, the biggest complaint I hear from foreigners is that there are too many rules, too many stoppages of play and little access to games on TV. If the NFL is ever going to develop a mass fan base abroad, they have to step up the grass roots education of the game, wrap the foreign product for TV differently than we do here, (less commercials/interruptions), have a better understanding of the culture of the foreign fan, and give them more access to the personalities (players/coaches) that make the game more fun, personal and interesting.
Follow me on Twitter: @Jackbechta