With many sports being crippled by COVID-19, David Tossell, Director of Public Affairs at National Football League (NFL) UK and Europe, is keen to press on through the global pandemic and continue to attract more fans to the sport, despite the obstacles presented by the virus. The fanbase has grown impressively over recent years, with overall engagement increasing by over 50% annually over the last decade.
I spoke with Tossell to discuss the COVID-19 impact on NFL UK growth, developments on a London based NFL franchise and the ever-changing world of social media.
London Franchise and International Games
The London NFL games are a spectacle eagerly consumed by fans, with ticket demands continuously increasing. The 2020 season was to be the 14th consecutive year with an NFL game being played in London. What started out as a few thousand at White Hart Lane had transformed into sold out games at Wembley. The hopes of staging five scheduled international games this year were dashed by the pandemic, but Tossell is still ambitiously planning for the future:
“We are all confident that we will be back next year and there is a strong commitment from the league and from ownership to be back next year with games at Tottenham and Wembley and hopefully look back at 2020 as just being a little blip.”
“I think everyone can see that there is still massive opportunity for international growth for the NFL and we want to be back playing games in London and Mexico and try to stage the games in as familiar a fashion as people would expect.”
The idea of a London based franchise has been thrown around for many years. A team in the capital did have a short run from 1991-97 in the World League of American Football (WLAF) and again in the 1997-98 with NFL Europe (London Monarchs). However, the Monarchs soon disbanded, and the league followed, but 22 years on a rejuvenated London team is still an on-going decision.
“We certainly have not had any internal discussion about expansion franchises. We all know that if there is going to be a team in London it will be a team relocating, so that’s why it’s very difficult for us to be accurate about timelines and I think that we have got the UK market into a position where we could support a team. But that decision is now effectively out of our hands.”
“The logistics of figuring out that if there was a team here, how the schedule would work, how travelling would work, how the team would be set up and where the players would live and that is on-going work, so we wouldn’t expect any owner to relocate to London unless all those questions had been answered.”
So, whilst the international series is on hold due to the pandemic and plans for a London based franchise look no closer to being finalised, these events have coincided with renewals of various UK TV deals. Sky, BBC and a new Channel 5 Viacom collaboration with MTV all provide NFL UK with exciting possibilities for new digital content.
“We are already seeing our total TV reach numbers are tracking ahead of where they were last year, the hope is that we have fan growth numbers in exactly the place that they would have been if we had games.”
There is no denying that fans in a stadium create a buzz that is hard to replicate as Tossell explains:
“The challenge for us has been to create the kind of noise around the season that we might have lost without being able to create that noise from the London games.”
Rise of Social Media
The significant rise of social media underlines the importance of platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. These platforms provide 24/7 access to not only your favourite teams but the players themselves, with potential reach over what may be classed as more traditional media outlets like newspapers and magazines. NFL UK has amassed over 158,000 Instagram followers and over 210,000 followers on Twitter, working closely with social media influencers to promote the sport and increase fanbase:
“We have worked hard to increase our own [social media] platforms over the last few years and all of our accounts have grown massively, so we are confident we are growing more and more ways to engage with people whether they are existing fans or potential new fans.”
“One of the big things we have done in the last four or five years is develop a network of influencers, people who are NFL fans,” Tossell highlights.
Tossell also reinforces the importance of making sure that NFL UK are reaching and connecting with people from both ends of the fandom spectrum:
“Whilst we are clearly interested in new fan growth, we also want to make sure that our existing fans get what they need because you don’t want to lose them. There’s no point bringing in fans at the bottom of the funnel if the guys at the top are disappearing because they think there is nothing left there for them.”
The NFL and NFL UK have clearly been impacted by COVID-19 and its associated restrictions, but what is also evident is the extensive planning for the upcoming 2021 season and for the delivery of content to fans by new and improved means.