BRAND HEALTH CHECK: American football - Can the NFL get Brits to turn on the Super Bowl?

American football's showpiece event is back on terrestrial TV in January. How should the NFL promote the sport to a UK audience that lost interest in the 1980s?

Last week the US sat down to eat Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey was spared, and coupled with liberal portions of cranberry jelly and pumpkin pie, most Americans settled down to watch the nation's favourite game, American football.

All games lead to the pinnacle of the NFL (National Football League) season, the Super Bowl - this season numbered XXXVII and taking place in San Diego, California, on Sunday, January 26, 2003.

But the NFL now wants to turn the Super Bowl into a major date in the UK sporting calendar. It is in talks with UK-based creative and media agencies about developing a dedicated marketing campaign designed to build enthusiasm for the event.

There was a time in the UK when the game was popular. The Super Bowl was first shown in the UK in 1983 and watched by one million people. By Super Bowl XX in 1986 this had grown to about four million viewers. Its rising popularity was due to a number of reasons, one being the fact that during the early 80s there was very little sport on TV.

There were only 14 live UK football games a year and any sport you could watch you grabbed with both hands. Broadcasting finished each evening with a white dot and the national anthem. Nothing happened past midnight.

The fact that people were given the chance to watch sport into the night was new and gratefully accepted.

That it was new and interesting was part of its downfall. As the novelty wore off, other niche sports began to erode the NFL's popularity. By 1997/98 Channel 4's viewing figures were down to one million. This year the event will be shown live on terrestrial TV for the first time since 1998 by Five and also, as usual, on Sky Sports.

Marketing asked Steven Pearson, founder of Sportacus, Europe's first stadia naming rights specialists and previously commercial director of the FA Premier League, and Steve Copestake, vice-president of marketing for Buena Vista International Television, who previously worked at Sky, for their thoughts.


NFL Europe League average attendance figures

2001 2002

Amsterdam Admirals 13,258 11,664

Barcelona Dragons 9467 8896

Berlin Thunder 9263 9914

Frankfurt Galaxy 30,535 33,904

Rhein Fire 35,010 32,742

Scottish Claymores 13,904 11,189

Average 18,573 18,309

Source: NFL Europe


Steven Pearson

If the Super Bowl is to appeal to a UK audience, a few changes are necessary. Firstly, teach David Beckham to run with a ball or play linebacker. And don't let him wear a helmet. Also make the game last no longer than 90 minutes.

The Super Bowl/American football will struggle to find genuine mass appeal over here - it's been tried and tested, remember NFL Europe's London Monarchs?

It is undeniable that the Super Bowl is one of the biggest annual sporting events on the planet. The stadia, players, coverage, advertisers - it is big any way you look at it. The marketing mix, to include TV, outdoor and print, must reflect that. Book the most gargantuan poster sites that Cromwell Road has to offer, size here is everything. The campaign should also seek to engage with the personalities involved, the men behind the masks; remember The Fridge of the Chicago Bears and John Elway of the Denver Broncos?

It briefly became cult Sunday night/Monday morning viewing, with the obligatory crate of Bud. The challenge is to recreate and build upon that somewhat underwhelming legacy. Can they do it? Probably not, but I'm eager to see them try.

Steve Copestake

Be very afraid when the climactic event of your brand's year is no more than the pointy bit of a substantial pyramid of audience apathy.

For most Brits the Super Bowl is more likely to mean retail-park ten-pin than tortillas and touchdowns. Hardly surprising. Not many of us support causes that we don't comprehend and can't do for ourselves.

American football is unique among major sports in that you absolutely need an understanding to want to watch it. A casually indulgent dip, tortilla or otherwise, it is not. Kids can't easily play it at school or outside the shops. As a spectacle, impossibly commercial translates straight to impossibly long and interrupted. Throw in the vulgarity and assumed superficiality of Americana and you're, well, struggling.

Time out. All is not lost. It'll need some smart moves, and a 'Hail Mary' in terms of effort but, in marketing terms, the essence of the offer has always been a constant. The Super Bowl is a captivating, not-to-be-missed, explosive piece of televisual entertainment. It's an entertainment 'event'. So just express and exploit it that way.


Pearson's pointers

- Engage floating viewers, especially core viewers of the broadcasters - Five and Sky Sports.

- A decent PR campaign is the best route to increase awareness of the athletes on the field - we have to care if we are to watch.

- Demystifying the rules would be a major plus to a public brought up on an entirely different sporting menu.

Copestake's comments

- The positioning must lean on the currency of the audience. They recognise and respect athletes. They understand that subtle balance of aggression with tactical nous.

Contrast NFL facts in the context of sports or sportspeople that we already understand and love. 'Faster than Jason Robinson' (you get the drift), 'stronger than ...', 'tougher than ...'.

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