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Sponsorship's International Impact on the NFL

Growing up in Washington, D.C., my family has had season tickets to the Redskins for more than half a century. At 6 years old, I attended my first game. Walking out into the burgundy-and-gold filled bowl of RFK Stadium, I was instantly captivated by the players warming up on the field, the blaring horns of the Redskins marching band and the wafting smells of freshly cut grass mixed with hot dogs and beer.

I also noticed the giant Coca-Cola sign on the scoreboard, the D.C. Lottery clock behind the end zone, and various other branding throughout the stadium. I was too young to comprehend at the time, but this was my first exposure to sponsorship.

International growth has largely been a secondary priority, until recently.
Fast forward 30 years, and sponsorship has grown into a $20+ billion industry in North America according to IEG, with the National Football League leading the way. As the League has continued to attract business partners and fans domestically, international growth has largely been a secondary priority, until recently.

Over the past 8 years, the NFL has put significant investment into building its brand and developing fan bases in the U.K and Canada. Since 2007, the NFL has been playing regular season games in London, with three games scheduled at Wembley Stadium this season, beginning with the October 4 matchup between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. The NFL reports that fan engagement has grown each year, with 13 million NFL fans in the UK today, and 14.7 million viewers across the 2014/15 NFL season.

In Canada, the NFL is widely considered the second most popular sports league behind the NHL. The NFL’s history of playing exhibition games in Canada dates back to 1960, and from 2008 until 2013, the Buffalo Bills played one regular season home game a year in Toronto, tapping into a fan base that lives within a 75-mile radius of Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium. Today, the NFL boasts nearly 12 million fans in Canada, with distribution of live broadcasts of every NFL game helping to fuel the League’s growth north of the border.

Now, the NFL has identified Mexico, Germany and Brazil as key growth markets. In Mexico and Germany, there is a history of American football, with the NFL’s first international regular season game having taken place in Mexico’s Estadio Azteca in 2005, and the now defunct NFL Europe League featuring teams in multiple German cities. In Brazil, the NFL sees an opportunity to gain a foothold in Latin America’s largest economy, where American flag football participation and NFL viewership are growing, and where there is a recent track record of hosting major international sporting events.

As the NFL looks to build its global presence, whether in these markets or others, opportunities abound for brands to help drive the League’s international growth, and for marketers to shift the sponsorship value proposition.

Sponsor-Driven Growth

Whereas the NFL is one of the biggest brands in the U.S., League sponsors such as Procter & Gamble, Visa and SAP are bigger and more influential than the NFL in many key international markets. As the NFL increases its investment in markets like Mexico, Germany and Brazil, its sponsors can help open doors and engage new fans through retail activations, advertising campaigns and B2B programs. The NFL recognizes the value that its sponsors can provide on a global scale and will be looking to develop strategic partnerships that drive growth beyond the traditional model of generating revenue through rights fees.

Shifting Value Proposition

While the NFL is not the marketing machine globally that it is in the U.S., the NFL Shield still carries significant weight in certain international markets, particularly from a grassroots and broadcast/digital distribution standpoint. In general, the level of investment for NFL sponsorship rights in international territories is considerably less than domestic rights. Therefore, the opportunity exists for brands to shift the sponsorship paradigm, where rather than paying large rights fees, they can help offset some of the cost of their NFL international sponsorship through promotional activities, fan development programs and B2B services.

Creative Deal-Making

The NFL’s global expansion efforts should allow the League and brand marketers to get creative with their sponsorship approach. Consumer products brands that can offer broad exposure to the NFL in international territories through retail promotions and advertising should look to leverage their reach when exploring partnership opportunities with the League. Traditional and emerging travel brands (e.g. Uber or Airbnb) can provide needed services to the NFL in exchange for certain rights in select markets. And technology companies that can enhance the experience of fans around the world through content creation and distribution, while offering solutions to the League’s IT challenges, can provide tangible value to the NFL.

The NFL appears committed to exporting its empire overseas, but to do so successfully will require a willingness to think outside the box with sponsors and business partners. At the same time, sponsors can help facilitate the NFL’s international growth, while driving shareholder value through association with America’s dominant sports league.

Thirty years ago, Coca-Cola played a role in my introduction to the NFL at RFK Stadium. Today, global brands have an opportunity to introduce the NFL to future fans in Germany, Brazil and other countries around the world.

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