As the NFL holds its final two games in England for 2017, Hussain Naqi, senior vice president, international development of the Jacksonville Jaguars speaks about the Jags' commitment to the UK, the club's commercial growth and its investment in grassroots, which will see the launch of a university scholarship...
Your early career in the US was in law, how did you transition from that the international development of an NFL team?
It’s been a long path from a background in law. I was involved in the Met Life Stadium, which is where the Jets and Giants play in New York and I was general counsel to the operating company that actually owns the stadium, which is co-owned by the Jets and the Giants. My boss, Mark Lamping really took a flyer on me – I owe him quite a lot. He gave me that opportunity to head the legal department and I was there for a few years, and when Mark got the opportunity to become the president of the Jaguars, I went down with him to Jacksonville.
In New York it was an ‘all hands on deck’ type of mentality so everyone had operational tasks they were responsible for and when the chance came up to follow him, I jumped at it. There were some things that needed to get done, some improvements to my areas of responsibility at Jags and it was a natural transition for me. From there over to London it was an easy transition, I am involved in fan and brand development over here, so not so much on the sales side. Mark wanted a little more senior presence in London and I was familiar with some of the market, but still had a tonne to learn for the first two years I’ve been here. It was always an easy decision to come here, it’s a place and market I’ve always wanted to be a part of.
How much of your role focuses on the integration of the Jags into the UK market?
I oversee the territory and have full commercial responsibility for the UK market, that includes revenue, branding and operational perspectives – so I can be blamed for a lot of things I guess!
We have a unique relationship with the UK thanks to our commitment to playing one of our home games here every year. We have exclusive marketing rights to this market, so no other team can do what we do here. As a function of that, we have the rights to commercialise it. We work in tandem with the NFL, and the league has certain responsibilities in putting on the games, but we are trying to do our thing as well.
The Jags is the only NFL team to commit to a home game a year in England
Jags are the first NFL team to really commit to the UK, which has been underpinned by founding partners such as LGT Vestra US & Lycamobile. What opportunities do you see for Jags – and NFL – moving forward in the UK market?
For the Jags, the sky is the limit. We provide a unique platform for any company as the game grows. The NFL is the fastest growing sport in a participation and popularity perspective in the UK – depending on the metrics you use; we have more fans than some of the more conventional sports you can think of in this country. We are raising a lot of eyebrows with how quickly the game is growing. My personal belief is as people develop a stronger affinity to the sport they’re likely to grow an affinity with a team. We feel like we are on the leading edge of that growth and uniquely positioned to capture that. People are going to want to affiliate with the team, we are the UK’s and London’s home team and we view this as our second home, but we have a lot more to do in growing the game.
Are there big differences in the commercial opportunities and campaign activations between the two markets?
Of course, the proposition for American football here is still young. We have a massive market share in the US and it is an incredible enterprise. Over here, we are still, in many respects, making a name for ourselves and educating the corporate and consumer community about the game. That presents great opportunity and a really great footprint. It’s also very different, sometimes you have to explain to people in this country that it is a very popular sport- we have 13 million people in the UK who identify as American football fans!
The games over here are a spectacle, with a real wow factor, it’s awesome but it’s not sustainable for a long-term growth. If you have people who are just interested in the show, you have a lot of people there ticking a box to say they’ve been to that. Our game is a really interesting chess match and we’ve proven there’s a real appetite among European fans for actually learning the game. It’s about that education and getting them hooked on the game itself, which is what will take it to the next level and make it sustainable. I think you have to make that transition from “Wow, why is there a DJ on the sideline?” to “That’s a really cool strategy.”
Grassroots is a big part of development of American football, is that where you see Jags placed to be the real ‘home team’, through your commitment with Jag Tag?
Our ‘north star’ for everything we do is growth through participation, and we feel like participating at the game and at the sport is critical. But participation can take place in many different forms; one example is Jag Tag, our non-contact American football programme focused on primary and secondary school children that has seen around 3,000 children play. We also have an academy where we bring over former players and current coaches to upskill both coaches and active players of American football here in the UK; the Se7ens Cup is a national flag football tournament that’s just taken place, and we’re sending the winners to the Super Bowl.
Finally, we also hold weekly NFL viewing parties for people who aren’t necessarily participating in the sport, but who can watch and engage with the games as spectators.
We’ll be announcing more details about it, but we’ll also be launching a scholarship scheme next year with one of our founding partners. We’ll be sending a couple of kids to university every year for free, if they have participated in Jag Tag, and financially qualify for a needs based grant. We want to make American football aspirational and we feel like we have a real opportunity to do that.
There are nine teams in the NFL that play in the UK, is there ever a worry that they’ll choose to support one of those rather than Jags, considering the commitment you have made already?
We are here on a regular basis and are committed to growth of the game, and the fact we are here has given us a lot of traction. We’ve gone from when we started five years ago as the 31st or 32nd most popular team, to now being in the top ten in the UK because of our reoccurring presence. It’s not been due to our play on the pitch anyway!
There are clearly things we are doing that are working. If you look at the growth of fandom and the composition of the fans at each of these games, you’ll see the predominance of Jaguars merchandise at our games compared to other International Series games where you see a much more diverse set of jerseys. I think that helps to prove that when the Jags are in town, the fans want to see them.
There’s also now an exclusive UK weekly press conference called Jaguars Jams. There are all sorts of ways for fans to participate and we feel like we have something for everyone through each one of those elements. There’s no secret that content is king and we need to develop content that is interesting to broaden our fan base. It’s not often that fans have the opportunity to ask NFL players questions and it hasn’t been commonplace for UK media, on an exclusive basis, to speak to any NFL team. It’s important to have resonance within this market and that informs everything we do.
The Jags recently played to a sold-out crowd at Wembley. More stadiums are now part of the game, so what do you think the next steps are for the Jags, and the sport as a whole?
The continued presence and education of the game. The NFL has done a fantastic job of making the game available – we are the only sport that has two highlights shows on the BBC. Viewership last year alone was up 43% and that speaks that the league has a great media strategy here.
Growing availability is key, and we are really pleased with how things are going.