Following a record-breaking attendance at last month’s London 2017, and four NFL games set to arrive in the capital in the coming weeks, leaders of both organisations agreed a balance of dedicated fans and family accessibility were key to continuing sold out venues.
Commenting on the recent IAAF World Championship and World Para-athletics Championships, Niels De Vos, CEO of UK Athletics, explained: “It would be foolish for anyone to put a big event on in Britain and assume people will buy tickets, because you’ll wake up to a very empty stadium. There has still got to be a well thought through ticketing strategy.
“We recognised that there is a difference between the people that go to the big events and hardcore athletics fans – probably also the case for the NFL at Wembley – but everyone wants to experience the occasion. Getting that balance right is important because you can’t detract from the core product - people shouldn’t be coming to see the fireworks or the mascot, for example - they should be there for the athletics, but there’s room to complement.”
De Vos, who was also previously performance director before appointing Neil Black in order to focus on the events business, was joined on the panel by Alistair Kirkwood, MD of NFL UK, who will be staging four matches in London over the next two months. With that come a number of logistical challenges, but Kirkwood also explained that many of the challenges of the past were not always the most expected ones.
“I remember back in 2007, there was a real concern about things like jet-lag, and whether there would be a big disadvantage for the teams competing,” recalled Kirkwood. “Before they came to play in London, 56% of our players had never been abroad. It’s amazing how many of our operational issues have been passport or travel related in the past.
“Fast forward to this year, following this round of games 26 out of 32 teams will have played in London, so we’ve come a long way. It’s also a landmark year with four games over here. For everyone working in a lot of team sports that doesn’t necessarily sound that much, but NFL has a very compressed season – four games marks half a regular season! It’s been a real journey.”
2017 will see two matches played at Wembley Stadium, and two matches played at Twickenham, with a long-term agreement to play matches at Tottenham Hotspur FC’s new stadium in the near future. Meanwhile, as part of its 50-year deal, UK Athletics will continue to utilise it’s annual time at the London Stadium, which will be dedicated to athletics every summer.
With the London Stadium's anchor tenants, West Ham United FC, playing their first home fixture of the season on Monday, Niels de Vos commented: “I think West Ham got a very good deal out of a stadium. When it was built, it was built as a multi-purpose stadium, despite a brief period of nonsense when giving it to football entirely was considered, but that was never really a viable option. We fought very hard to ensure that didn’t happen, not just for athletics but also for other sports – we could see the Cricket World Cup there in 2019, maybe the NFL in the future, and the Rugby World Cup has already been there. That’s important, it’s a public asset and should be treated as such.
“For a few weeks a year we get to showcase athletics there, which is a huge opportunity for our sport – it’s a game changer – and every federation around the world is incredibly envious. It takes us from being a small scale live event experience to a huge scale, with London 2017 being a great example of that. It’s vital to keep athletics at the top of public understanding. You need a stage for your top performers to perform on, and the London Stadium gives us that.”
Speaking with The Times’ Alyson Rudd, who moderated the session, De Vos also stressed the importance of continuing to innovate, in order to keep fans engaged in the sport, especially with the likes of Jessica Ennis-Hill, Usain Bolt and Mo Farah retiring from the track in recent months.
“We’ve launched a new event for next year called The Meet, which is a head to head between Britain and America, and no one really knows any more than that, but we’ve already had enough registrations to sell the stadium out, which is extraordinary,” added De Vos. “Athletics is a primal thing, it doesn’t need explanation. You cross the line first, or jump or throw the furthest. You win. It’s that simple, and we don’t want to overcomplicate it.
“I’m surprisingly less concerned by the likes of Mo Farah and Usain Bolt retiring than people might expect, and that’s just based on fact. Take the Anniversary Games in 2016 for instance, hosted on a Friday and Saturday night, Friday had Mo and Usain running, but more tickets were sold for the Saturday when they weren’t there. The deciding factor was simply whether families could get there or not, rather than which individuals were actually running, which we found very interesting and encouraging.”
Meanwhile, Kirkwood explained that much of the NFL's fan engagement was coming from new ways to speak to a global audience. Earlier this summer the NFL launched its Game Pass service across 61 European countries and territories, which Kirkwood hopes will allow NFL fans to tailor their viewing experience to their habits.
“What we’re trying to do is ensure that our consumers have enough ways into the sport, so they can make a decision into how much they want to invest going forward,” Kirkwood explained. “If you want to sample the sport and keep up to date with the headlines, then the BBC coverage is probably enough for you. However, if you’ve adopted a team or there are certain players you’re interested in, maybe because of your fantasy football team, then Game Pass could be an option – which helps with volume and choice.
“Like all sports rights holders we’re trying to navigate a dramatic change in the last decade in how sports fans and consumers want their sport. Free to air is important in terms of sampling and awareness. We’re not like athletics, a very simple sport, so we do need depth as well. With pay-TV it does give you that volume and depth as an option.
“While we have a strong fanbase, we accept we’re not experts in digital marketing, which is why we are making sure we’re working with people that are, such as Deltatre, who built the product, as well as WPP, Ogilvy and Two Circles working through how we put that product out. Results have been really good so far.”
Asked from the audience whether the integrity of athletics was an ongoing concern, De Vos replied: “Any sport needs to worry about its integrity, and in a sport where the difference between first and fourth can be so marginal, the temptation to reach for illegal options can be greater than in a team sport, where that tiny difference may not have such a substantial return. However, if you look at the hard facts, overall performance (times, distances etc), were actually slightly down on previous years, which is strangely a cause for celebration rather than concern as it suggests we are levelling out the playing field. Some of those irregular performances are now being found and discovered, and it was also brilliant to be able to re-award some British athletes for performances as far back as ten years ago.
“Athletes now know there is no hiding place. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen at all, but it means I’m much more confident than I was when I started ten years ago that people will be caught. We’re winning the battle.”
Finally, asked by a member of the audience whether Brexit was likely to impact the heavily-rumoured London NFL franchise in the future, Kirkwood explained: “The interesting thing about the decision to leave the EU, is that it actually makes a franchise in London easier to put on. Our business model in the league - with how we do free agents, shared revenues and how we draft players, for example – actually contravenes certain EU employment laws.
“We would have to consider either changing how we operate, which I don’t think was likely, or go back to the drawing board on a potential franchise. So the EU decision has made an objective – which is still extremely complicated, with a lot of moving pieces still to resolve – ever so slightly simpler.”
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