Ahead of Super Bowl LV, Sport Industry Group spoke to NFL UK Senior Director, Marketing, Charlotte Offord and Senior Manager, Social Media and Digital Content Jamie King to discuss the 2020 season.
This weekend’s Super Bowl will bring one of the strangest NFL seasons to a close.
Like all other sports played out during the pandemic, the league has had to adapt to restrictions with a vastly reduced crowd of 20,000 present in Tampa, Florida to watch the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the latter’s home stadium.
This time last year, more than 62,000 fans were present in Miami to see the Chiefs win in Florida in a game that proved to be one of the last major sporting events to take place before the pandemic began to spread globally.
“We were lucky enough to have got through last year’s Super Bowl before the March lockdown began,” said Offord.
“We were very grateful for that, and so we were in a period of with no games happening in the US, and we really needed to think about the season coming up.
“And so our focus for the season shifted to, how do we make NFL content. Highlights, and live games more accessible to the UK audience, and also how do we keep those fan communities that are really strong as connected as we possibly could without, you know, obviously, live events taking place, or them being able to physically come together and celebrate the games when they're at a pub or at friend's houses or however they usually consume it.”
King, a Sport Industry NextGen Leader, added: “We were able to have a full offseason to work on our plans and maximise the season in this new world that we lived in.
“We also got to look around the sport industry and see what other sports are doing because we are probably one of the last sports to start again. We could see what the Premier League during, or what Wimbledon were doing to engage fans even though they didn't have a tournament.
“It was good to look around sport and learn from others about how they were engaging fans at home."
Like those other sports, the NFL was part of the global conversation around racial inequality throughout the second half of 2020. It was also a factor in the US Presidential Election - having clashed with former President Donald Trump over issues like taking the knee throughout his time in office.
In the UK, fans of the NFL - which now number some 5% of the whole UK population, according to YouGov Sport - are continuing to grow, and for many the sport’s place in the context of US culture and politics is a significant draw.
“I definitely think whenever we see bigger events like things that happened in these last 12 months in the US, then we definitely do see an impact,” said King.
“I wouldn't say directly from our fans but more indirectly from partners and people wanting to talk about us. We see people wanting to come to us - especially people like (BBC NFL pundits) Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora or (Sky Sports NFL presenter) Neil Reynolds to comment on that, either as NFL experts or American experts. For us, that helps with the conversation we’re having.”
Over the years, the popular media personalities around the NFL games have grown in stature in the UK, becoming familiar faces to fans - something the league has, in the past has said helps it consolidate its fan base and keep new UK audiences engaged with the sport.
This season, in the UK, new audience growth has continued. Sky Sports has seen a 26% increase in its Sunday night NFL programming, while the BBC has also experienced a 20% rise in digital viewers for its weekly highlights show - which now draws in some 1.7 million viewers per week.
Offord says the league’s UK arm increased its media offering for this season in a move which has seen Sky Sports create a dedicated NFL channel for its coverage this year. It also renewed its deal with the BBC to continue to screen its free-to-air highlights show, as well as a deal with Viacom CBS, which put Monday Night Football on a free-to-air platform and came with the opportunity to screen lifestyle content on MTV in a bid to reach new audiences.
“One of the things was ‘how do we work with our broadcasters to make our media proposition much stronger than it has been before?” she said.
“That started off with the renewal of our Sky Sports partnership and being able to launch the dedicated NFL channel. That wasn't because of the pandemic but certainly was well timed, and made more content available to Sky subscribers.
“Off the back of the pandemic, people's schedules dramatically changed in terms of when they were consuming sport. And it wasn't necessarily always at the same times as everyone else - so having the ability to either watch it live on a weekend or consuming content during the week across the channel or on demand really opened that opportunity up for the fans."
The shifting patterns are a consequence of the flexibility that working from home offered to many in 2020. Throughout the years, the NFL has scheduled matches for Sunday afternoon US time to hit a 6pm audience in the UK, ensuring fans can watch games without staying up too late ahead of Monday morning commutes.
“From social engagement point of view,” said King, “one thing we found very quickly this year was that audiences were much more engaged in our late night games.
“We shifted to have Monday Night Football free to add this year,” said King, “and I think going into it we were excited about it, even though we weren't sure about how engaged the audience was going to be.
“I think we surprise ourselves with how big that audience is, and how engaged it is.
“I think a little bit of it is because people are at home, they're staying up late at night, they've got more flexible working hours, and that’s come a little bit more normal now. We've seen, as the playoff games have been starting at more prime times in the US, the fans are much much more engaged, particularly on social.”
The Super Bowl ends a strange NFL season, which saw the London Games postponed but fans continue to grow. One last late Sunday night / Monday morning beckons for UK fans, though alarms may not need to be set quite so early this time.