In London, the Jags’ rep still pronounces it Jag-U-Ars. It is delightful. We mentioned that a few Auburn guys were signed by Jacksonville, and she discussed several of the recent acquisitions from the SEC. Not the S-E-C, but the “SEC.” It was delightful.
And Laura Oaks, director of the Jags’ UK sponsorships, knows her stuff. This was a fascinating chat.
So the Jags have the exclusivity deal in London. This works well because they have limited market demographics at home — new franchise, much of their geography is actually in the Gulf and a great deal of their presumed Jacksonville fanbase is made up of military folks, transient or otherwise engaged fans. When owner Shad Khan made a multiyear commitment it might have seemed odd to some observers. But when you hear about what they are doing, a lot of things will start to make sense.
For the raw numbers, one game in London is worth the same amount of money as two games in Jacksonville in terms of the ticket yield. There will be three NFL games in Wembley this year, and they’re expecting to fill the 85,000 seat stadium for each game. Some four percent of the fans will be American and six percent more will come over from Europe. The rest are from the UK. The NFL estimates they have 28 million “avid fans” in the country.
So the first question is, “How do we make ourselves a mainstream sport?”
It is a multi-layered problem.
To mainstream they’re trying to become a top five team among the UK fanbase. They’re currently ranked as the number 10 team among NFL franchises there, but they’re surging. When they started the Jags could count 508 fans there, now they have a list with 35,000 fans. This, Oaks says, is a solid commercial base.
So the Jags are the fastest growing fanbase in the U.K. That multi-year deal helps, and along with that the commercial exclusivity that comes with it. They’ve also done a great deal of player, veteran, cheerleader availability programs to create a sense of openness with the fans.
Some of the problems start with the basics of football. They’re educating fans and employees about the game. Oaks told us about how she was hired for the job with no knowledge of the sport. (She’s an accomplished sports marketer and a quick study, but on day one she knew nothing of the sport.) Also, London is hugely competitive in sports. There are 15 football clubs in the city, a pro basketball team, a handful of rugby squads, cricket and an active outdoors cultural to compete with.
So you’re teaching a sport to a new nation. You’re doing it with a team that is, hopefully, on the rise.
“We are dealers in hope,” Oaks said. “We must at least give people the hope that we could win.”
Jacksonville’s commitment means they are the only team with commercial rights in London, but they are a young team, they haven’t yet won anything to merit a great deal of attention and so on.
“You’re taking a product into a new market, how much do you Anglicize it? How much do you Americanize it?”
So we’re talking about culture of sport as much as we’re talking about the field or the branding or anything of that sort. Oaks said there’s definitely a “love affair with that Americana feel” that allows a fan to get beyond themselves and whoop and holler. But there is an aversion to the commercialization that we are accustomed to tuning out here in the States.
The Americana isn’t just limited to a huge play. They are having great success with the off-the-field fun. Oaks says they’re estimating 600,000 fans taking part in the pre-game tailgating festivities on Regent’s Street. I asked her how they mine those people as prospective fans. If you have 35,000 people in a Jags’ database and know you’re getting somewhere between 85,000 and 255,000 into Wembley (allowing for returning fans) then there are a lot of people left to consider.
So they’ve turned to a Fan Pass app. To take part in certain tailgating activities you have to have the app. To use the app you have to input data. That information about you goes back to the league and to the Jags.
There’s a big fan difference in the UK too, and Oaks says it leaves American fans amazed. They’re looking at this with the idea that players drive fans which drive teams, and so they are working hard to bring the two closer together. They’re pointing at those interactions as part of the success story. Oaks says they push 50,000 fans through Trafalgar Square in a four hour period for NFL events.
Successful as the grassroots efforts have been, traditional broadcast efforts remain a winner both in terms of teams and marketing. But Oaks said this global-NFL program is about more than 60 minutes on the gridiron.
“Fans have become die hard fans very quickly. This is about belonging and engagement. People want to belong to something. This is why sport is so powerful.”
Some of the most successful NFL brands in the UK are the Patriots — winners get recognition — and teams that were strong in the 1980s. Oaks said that three of the of the BBC channels back then were showing church programming on Sundays. One was showing football. So, if you are of a certain age, she said, you grew up and perhaps remained a fan of the Giants or Dolphins or the like. They were on TV. (I suspect Buffalo and the Niners land in that group, too.) Winners get recognition.
“Shad Khan wants this to be an internationally-recognized brand.”
Now think about this. The NFL has this inroad to London, but there are league efforts in Brazil, Germany and China as well. The question is, “How best to activate those markets?”