Digital Sport London Event: Secrets to the UK growth of the NFL and NBA

It’s been a week since the last Digital Sport London event, talking US sport with NFL, UFC and NBA.

On the panel – moderated by Alex Trickett, former Global Sports Chair at Twitter – was Brianne Ehrenkrantz, Senior Director of Marketing, EMEA at NBA; Sarah Swanson, Head of Marketing, NFL UK; and James Elliott, Founder of Room9 and former SVP and General Manager of UFC EMEA. It’s fair to say it was a panel with a lot of experience in taking US sports to the UK and Europe.

As such, there was a lot of insight on display as well as a look at what’s been the most important areas of education for the three sports taking part. Below, we’ll look at five things which stood out from the evening’s chat.

Fans didn’t grow up playing US sport

It may seem like the obvious point in all of this, but the fact that a UK audience didn’t grow up playing US sports like basketball and american football isn’t just the barrier to those games’ traditional lack of penetration in this country. It is also a hurdle to their progression in the future, too.

Marketing NFL and NBA in the UK is made a harder job by the presence of die hard fans who have followed the sports for years and those with just a passing or casual interest in figuring out what’s going on. Making sure that newer fans can understand the rules of the game is clearly a massive deal, but that’s complicated by the fact that such an approach would appear to be talking down to fans already know exactly what’s going on and want a deeper analysis of the action.

And so, that’s why the future growth of US sports in the UK will partly rely on participation at grassroots levels, rather than just the gross number of spectators in the country.

Gaming and Esports can be crucial

There is another entry into participation, of course: gaming.

If you learn to play video games like Madden NFL or NBA 2K, you’re also learning how the sport itself works. You learn the rules and the fouls as well as the best teams and players of the season.

There’s something culturally important about the release of the new title every year, for NBA, NFL and indeed soccer’s FIFA series, but as a way to actually get into the sport, there are few better ways than by loading up and learning by gaming.

US Sports are growing Millennial audience the UK

One of the most interesting facets of the growth of US sports in the UK is the audience base.

In the US, NBA and NFL are losing numbers of ‘Millennial’ fans but are gaining them in the UK. Over the last few years, we’ve heard a lot about cord-cutters and young people ditching linear TV in favour of social media and streaming services. But in this country, it might well be the fact that US sports are growing impressively on social media and enlisting influencers to help make a genuine connection with new fans that’s driving the growth.

And that might explain why they’re doing a great job reaching a young audience.

Going from top of the pile to becoming challenger brand

It’s another obvious point that US sports are going from big fish in the US to smaller ones across the pond. But that also means the mentality has to change, too. In order to create that connection mentioned above, enlisting those influencers is incredibly important – but is something bigger sports may be less likely to do.

Getting content creators with large online followings – the likes of and – to learn the game with their followers and drive interest in the sport doesn’t just raise awareness of the live sport going on there and then, but it also helps curious, casual fans feel less lost when they do dip in for the first time.

They aren’t the only ‘influencers’ we found out were important to US sports breaking through in the UK: the athletes themselves can make for the best helpers.

Those players who are engaging on social media and who have a large fanbase are the ones who are already doing a great job to promote their sport – simply encouraging them to create more great content is one way of getting good, genuine engagement.

Indeed, creating crossovers between them and athletes from other sports is one way both NFL and NBA have discovered they can create a new ‘in’ for themselves in Europe. Antoine Griezmann and Thierry Henry are both massive names in football, but they’re also both huge basketball fans. Getting them involved is a no-brainer, then. Whilst the likes of Hector Bellerin tweeting from NFL UK’s launch party this year helped showcase the sport just before the start of the season.

About author

Chris McMullan
Chris McMullan 831 posts

Chris is a sports journalist and editor of Digital Sport - follow him on Twitter @CJMcMullan_

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