NFL Flag, presented by Subway, sees American football coached in local schools, teaching youngsters the NFL’s core values of respect, integrity and responsibility, whilst also promoting nutritional knowledge and the importance of getting active.
Since its introduction in the UK in 2014, the NFL Flag community programme has reached 10,000 school children across eight UK cities.
Sport Industry Group met with Jason Brisbane, a Brit formerly of the San Diego Chargers and now the NFL’s UK Head of Community, to discuss the impact of Flag across Britain, the grand plan for the sport’s long-term future in the UK and the continued debate over a London franchise.
Why has the NFL made social impact projects a central part of its investment in the UK?
In the US, the grassroots element is very much a part of who the NFL is. For instance, Tuesdays are the players’ day off and from the rookies up to the veterans, they enter local communities and take part in physical activity programmes in schools.
It’s very much ingrained into the programme that the NFL works in the communities to give young people opportunities to engage in sport and develop other skills. It’s part of who we are as a brand and an organisation, so if we are to have a home here, these are the projects we need to implement to stay true to what we believe in.
They (NFL) are always happy to lend support and are excited for us because they love the fact that Flag is growing and thriving here in the UK.
Why the emphasis on education over other social causes?
The NFL Flag programme is already massively popular in the US across the states. With Flag, children essentially get taken on a journey across 12 weeks from learning the basics on how to play, right through to how to compete in the game. It allows us to engage children in not just a physical activity but also a more meaningful manner.
Physical activity, whether competitive or just participating for an hour, improves mental and overall wellbeing. If we can do that through programmes like this, it’s going to support a child’s overall development.
It’s more than just about football. The set play nature of the game provides so many opportunities to communicate, helping develop key transferable skills and competition is also very important for children in terms of learning how to win and lose. They need to understand how to deal with outcomes that aren’t always positive to be successful in life.
2017 saw Subway announced as the presenting partner for the initiative in the UK and Ireland. How integral has its involvement been?
Sharing in a similar vision as us, having Subway’s support was key to enable us to grow this incredible programme. The partnership began in 2017 and they were important for us in being able to take this programme nationally. Subway love the work we are doing and thought, “let’s get this opportunity out to as many kids as possible.”
We’ve shown that you can do some incredible things with the NFL right now. If that does entice other brands to want to try and be part of the NFL family then we would obviously love that.
What will be the role of the programme in supporting momentum of the NFL in the UK and enhancing the footprint here over the coming year?
We are looking to introduce the next generation to the sport. Great if that eventually leads to them becoming fans and go to games, but for us it’s about getting them active and giving them opportunities. Anything else is a bonus.
American football has done so much for me as an individual and opportunities, so to now be able to bring this sport to children, I’m aware of how impactful the sport can be. To allow them the same is the best feeling.
I attended the Pro Bowl NFL Flag Championships last year, the big stage for the USA. This provided the perfect opportunity to witness how they operate and how we can make our big national tournament event (the NFL Flag Summer Bowl at Kings House Ground, Chiswick) look better from a brand and operational standpoint. If we can implement these learnings here, we’ll get better.
Are UK rightsholders playing catch-up in the sport-for-social-change space?
If a governing body or brand has the ability to launch these programmes, they should be. If you look at the US model and see how organised sporting activity is, it’s a huge part of school life. It should be the same here, not just on a school level, but within a community.
Children should always have somewhere to go and something to do in any competitive format. It’s bigger than sport, more about us as a society and government policies. However, facilities can be a challenge for many schools, so the question is often, is the mechanism available to do it?
What would success look like come the end of 2019?
It’s been a whirlwind ride going from essentially a programme that was just in London to growing the sport over ten regions around the UK in quite a short period of time. Our focus now is how do we keep those schools engaged?
Last year was very much about launching a national programme, trying to create sustained engagement as a key to longevity.
Our current prime focus is primary school years 4-6. We’ll probably expand as the programme grows and evolves, but we are trying to focus on this age range and get this right.
For us, it will be about having sustained engagement in the programme across all regions in all schools and having our tournament programme something that all the schools in each region look forward to. That’s the dream for us, to become part of the school calendar. I want to drive the programme to the point where Flag is played in every school in the UK.
We aren’t trying to replace any sports, we just want to take our place alongside them, so that when children wish to get involved in sport at school, they have Flag as an option alongside football, rugby, etc.
What metrics are used to measure the success of Flag and other community programmes?
We employ a third-party research company (Walker) to conduct surveys across our three key areas, physical activity, values and healthy living. Children complete surveys with their teachers before the programme begins and then again 12-weeks later.
Having the children take part in the programme in school is great but is it having a long-term effect? Are they deciding to eat healthier? Are they thinking about how they treat their peers and family? All these questions are measured. It’s a fluid process and at the end of each academic year we reassess, forever looking to improve.
Whilst American football has been played in the UK at amateur level since the ‘80s, we’re essentially introducing a vast number of children (aged 8-years and older) to this sport. These are potentially future fans and athletes and once the sport takes hold, it stays with you for future years.
Fast-forward ten-years’ time and the landscape for American football in this country is going to be very different. However, you’ve got to try and find a balance between educating the new fans, whilst also making it authentic and a success.
Which regions have proved fruitful case studies so far?
Every time we return and speak to schools, especially over the last year, they all want more. They ask when the next tournament is. We worked with ten schools up in Manchester last year and I think we have reached about 30 there now into the programme.
Leeds is another region which has proven very successful, transforming many of its youngsters’ whole attitude to physical activity. Teachers have been raving about the programme and really bought into it.
We’d find that most of the children have either never heard of the NFL or played it before, yet ten weeks into the programme and they suddenly have a favourite player, watch on YouTube or television and have found something they love.
Is there a specific offering for host communities? How are you engaging, for example, with people in the area around the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium?
We’ve been talking since this time last year, working with the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation to build that relationship so we have a really good idea of what goes on in Haringey, the needs and how we can add value.
With us having a presence there (Tottenham) for ten years, it’s going to be key for us to engage with the community. We have a lot of plans on how we plan to engage with local schools and residents. We wish to make it feel that the NFL is part of that area, working with Tottenham year-round, not just around the time of the games.
As someone who has been on the journey with the NFL in the UK, how do you assess the future landscape? How important is a London franchise?
Once we’ve created sustained regions and hubs within each part of the country, then the NFL will essentially be here to stay regardless of a franchise or not.
We can just concentrate on doing our best to create that landscape to support if needs be. If we keep going how we are, even without a franchise, the ability to grow the sport and enjoyment of the sport is here.
It’s an endless opportunity simply because we bring Flag programmes and engage with children where they can get hands-on with the NFL and actually play. The more sport we can provide to young people and the more sports events that they can attend, they’ll find sports they never knew they loved. I’m all for giving people new experiences. You don’t know what you don’t like if you’ve never tried it.
I went to London’s first (regular season) NFL game back in 2007 and compared to now, they are like two completely different events, encompassing everything including Tailgate to the whole NFL experience. Every single year has seen improvements. The NFL does a great job of working on how they get best in class.