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SBD Global/September 22, 2017/People and Pop Culture

Hangin' With ... NFL UK Managing Dir Alistair Kirkwood

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NFL UK Managing Dir Alistair Kirkwood
ALISTAIR KIRKWOOD is the managing director of NFL UK. Sunday's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium will be one of four that take place in London this year. On Oct. 1, the New Orleans Saints will take on the Miami Dolphins, also at Wembley. Games between the Arizona Cardinals and L.A. Rams (Oct. 22 at Twickenham Stadium) and Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings (Oct. 29 at Twickenham Stadium) will wrap up this year's London schedule. By the end of this season, 26 of the NFL's 32 teams will have played a regular season game in London. Kirkwood reflected on the NFL's growth overseas since its first London game in '07 and the league's recent deal with Subway, and addressed the question of when fans should expect to see a London-based franchise.

On when the NFL might entertain holding more than four games a year in London ...
Alistair Kirkwood: The way we look at it is, how many games might be made available? So what's the supply, first of all? The demand is really strong. We've continued to enjoy sellout games. We've got 40,000 people that bought tickets to all games, which shows that there's a strong base of people that will come to all games irrespective of matchups and team loyalties. Obviously, the league has committed to playing games in Mexico, starting last year, and now they've got the [Oakland] Raiders and [New England] Patriots playing in November as well. So there's a limit to the number of games that might be available, and I wouldn't want to second-guess what that limit might be, but it obviously takes a lot of time to work with the home teams to work out ways of making games available, and then announcing them. I don't think that there's a set number of games that you need to play in a year to understand the market and understand how you actually are operating. I might have said something different if we were only playing one game a year because you don't quite know until you do multiple games what the effect might be. ... I've never gone in saying, "If we get to X number of games, then we will know more." I think every year is a learning experience.

On the partnership NFL UK announced with Subway in July ...
Kirkwood: Another big change for us is that we have successfully sold a headline sponsor for the games. We partnered with Subway to be a headline sponsor for all four games, which is huge for us, and a big landmark thing for us. ... It's probably fair to say that in the early years we were making [the sponsorship deals] up as we were going along. And I can say that because I was there, I'm not criticizing anybody else. This is the first time since we've been playing multiple games that we've sold those rights as a package, and as part of a broader, really strong, consumer-facing partnership. Going to four games is a landmark for us and having a partner that is supporting that vision is also a landmark moment for us.

On how the NFL's expansion into Mexico affects its efforts in the U.K. ... 
Kirkwood: Selfishly, the more games that we play internationally, irrespective of the territory, the more learnings and insight and, hopefully, great experiences that the teams have. It's not a situation where if Mexico gets a game, they take it away from the U.K. That's not how it works. What it actually means is that for the most successful sport domestically, there's greater learnings and more international opportunities for us to grow the game by playing more games abroad. I think it's all good. Certainly there are four or five from my team here that go down to Mexico and help out with that game. We pool resources and we share learnings and we have complementary insights. ... In many ways, it's a backhanded compliment to the games that we've played in the U.K. that the league now wants to play in other territories, because that means that we've been doing something right.

On why the NFL held regular season games in London before Mexico City ...
Kirkwood: There's probably three or four reasons why the U.K. was seen as a good test bed for playing regular season games and then eventually became kind of a calendar thing. The first one is that the U.K. is the second-largest sports rights market in the world, after the U.S. So if you could actually build a meaningful business, it's probably important to operate in a place where the cake is so big that if you get a slice of it, it's meaningful. The second is that most of the time, our two countries speak the same language, more or less. It's important because more than half of players, historically, that have played abroad, that's their first trip abroad. There's lots of athletes that have not had a global experience, and so if you go back to when we were first playing these, there was understandable nervousness as to what the effects would be of playing a game over here.

On the success of the first regular season NFL game in '07 ...
Kirkwood: We really benefited from putting on a very good first game, so that's anecdotally a very important thing. When we put on our first game in 2007, the [Miami] Dolphins versus the [N.Y.] Giants, not only was it well-received, but the Giants went on to win the Super Bowl that year. We got really lucky from a competitive perspective. There was then a curiosity as to whether we would have a sophomore slump -- if we put a second game on, would the novelty end. We put on the second game between the Saints and the [then-San Diego] Chargers, that went well. It got momentum and then we demonstrated that we were getting fan growth on the back of these games and starting to build a business. 

On the latest regarding the possibility of a London-based franchise ... 
Kirkwood: I don't have anything new, because genuinely there's not really any time that we spend here focusing on it. Our starting point is to grow the fanbase to the extent where owners could make a decision if they wanted to at some time in the future. Then the second piece is to work through the operations side. You might argue that playing back-to-back games is a really good insight, because if you feel good about field conditions, if you feel good about fan demand and other things, that can contribute to your knowledge as to whether that's something that could work in the future. The bit that you will never truly know until you choose to do it -- and it's exactly the same argument that you'd have had 10 years ago as to whether you should have been playing a game in the first place over here -- is whether a team here would be competitive. Arguably, until you actually do it, you won't know for sure. I would say that if you're ownership, and you wanted to put a franchise over here, you'd need to feel really, really certain that this was additive and something that would benefit the NFL.

Hangin' With runs each Friday in SBD Global.
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