Podcast: Sarah Swanson on why NFL London Games are both very special and also just another game
For all sports, one of the biggest challenges that leagues, clubs and governing bodies face is how to keep fans hooked, especially when there’s no actual sport going on.
The off-season is, in some ways, a dangerous time. How do you keep fans interested? How do you make sure the storylines continue? How do you engage even when you start to feel that bit more irrelevant to people’s lives?
That’s most pronounced for events like Wimbledon, the Tour de France and other once-a-year events, no matter how well-known and loved the may be by their fans. But what’s interesting about those events is that they’re really only one small part of an entire season’s worth of action, even if they may well be the only tennis or cycling most fans consume over an entire year.
The NFL’s UK initiative is, in some ways, in a similar position, and yet also completely unique. Four NFL games are taking place in London this October, and we’ve already had three of them – sell-outs at two of the country’s biggest and most dearly-held sporting venues, Wembley and Twickenham. We’re not talking about exhibition games or pre-season friendlies, but regular season games. And that’s what makes NFL UK’s London games so special.
On this week’s Digital Sport Insider podcast, NFL UK’s Head of Marketing, Sarah Swanson, sat down with Dan McLaren to talk about everything from how the sport is making waves in Europe to her own career and her unlikely passion for Everton FC.
But one of the topics covered was how the UK arm of the NFL attempts to merge the fact that they have an intense period of four games with the need to engage with European fans for an entire season, ending with next year’s Super Bowl in February. So, does NFL UK treat the London Games a little bit like Wimbledon might treat its few weeks of intense spotlight?
“We do, but what I’ve spent a lot of time trying to talk about since I got here is that we’re not just four games – or three games or two games, even when we were,” says Swanson. “We are kick-off to Superbowl and so I really want the games to be a platform so people know we’re not just those four ‘circus comes to town, amazing’ sort of moments.”
“We are a sport that you can follow the entire season outside of those games. Because at the end of the day, even if we sell out 80,000 people times four, that’s not enough people to be a full fanbase, we have to be more than just four games.”
“Having said that, those four games are certainly the big moment and we try to capitalise on them! “
That’s the difficulty, though. Capitalising on the fact that the NFL comes to London for regular season games is clearly imperative in order to make sure that interest from UK and European fans solidifies into real fandom. But, at the same time, the avid fans of any sport don’t just watch for four weeks of the year, they watch the whole season’s worth of action. And for NFL UK, the challenge isn’t so much selling out games in London, but growing the number of UK fans who will follow the whole season, even after the London Games end. Even the teams themselves have to be aware that their game just another game, but at the same time is a massive opportunity for expansion into another continent is hugely important.
“The teams are a huge part of it, the events are a huge part of it, luckily we’ve sold really well for many years,” says Swanson. “So in terms of ticketing, we work hard to try to make sure we get the structure of the ticketing right and get the comms around ticketing right, but we haven’t had to work terribly hard to market and advertise tickets because we sell pretty quickly, which is great.”
“We make sure that we pre-plan as much as you possibly can with the teams, but then you also know that these clubs are coming in at a point in their season and who knows what might have happened the week before so there’s flexibility.”
“It’s just another game. But it’s a game that’s in London and off their routine, so you’re trying to protect that routine as much as possible because athletes are creatures of habit, their coaches are certainly creatures of habit, and we do our best to recreate that habit as much as possible over here, while also working with them to understand that yes it is just a game, but for us it’s an opportunity, and for them, from a fanbase perspective, too. “
“Every teams’s different – they could be on a winning streak and feeling really good and really open to everything, or it could be the opposite. We’ve got the Browns [next week] and they’re not on a winning streak, but because of that they’re actually so open to doing all kinds of things because thye’re like ‘what have we got to lose?’ And they’re wonderful to work with.”
Just like in the sport itself, it’s all about taking the opportunities as they come. The UK is clearly embracing the NFL, at least based on the fact that four games have sold out. Before Tottenham Hotspur – whose new stadium will be shared with the NFL in the coming years – moved into Wembley themselves this season, no Premier League fixture had ever sold over 80,000 tickets. With the NFL themselves selling out stadiums of that capacity, it’s clear there’s something to it.
And yet, the Premier League certainly isn’t the competition. In fact, no other sport is in the crosshairs at all: the goal is to make fans interested enough to factor it into their daily lives.
“For us, it’s not about somebody choosing us over another sport,” says Swanson, “I think it’s just about people making time in their lives for the NFL. I never think we’re competing, really, against any other sport, or even any other passion. It’s just about time.”
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