|Alistair Kirkwood- Managing Director, NFL UK|
|Profile of the week|
Monday, 12 March 2012 13:12
Alistair Kirkwood heads up the NFL’s UK office in London, overseeing all commercial operations, including television negotiations and the staging of NFL International Series games in the UK.
Under his guidance, the NFL has achieved consistent growth in the UK over the past decade and has now staged five successful games at Wembley Stadium – the only regular-season NFL games ever staged outside North America. UK broadcast coverage of the Super Bowl in February achieved a combined television audience of 4.3 million viewers on BBC ONE and Sky Sports, while the NFL also numbers Channel 4, ESPN and BBC Radio among its UK broadcast partners. The NFL’s UK internet site has grown in the past four years to achieve a ten-fold increase to 380,000 registered users.
Kirkwood joined the NFL in 2000 as Vice-President of Strategic Planning. He had previously completed an MBA/MBI degree (Masters in Business Administration and Business Informatics) at the Erasmus Graduate School of Business in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Earlier in his career he worked for blue-chip organisations such as Hilton Hotels as well as small telecom start-ups. His background is in finance and marketing and in 1996 he won the grand prix in the Sunday Times National Marketing Awards.
By Ismail Uddin
How did you come about joining the NFL and in particular NFL UK?
I wrote to the Vice President of the NFL, a letter saying here are ten things you are doing wrong internationally, I’m available for three months and I can solve two of them, which was a ballsy way of grabbing their attention. They interviewed me and put me in the Amsterdam office for three months. I had a great time, went to New York, had meetings with owners and commissioners and did a bunch of things. Then I went back and finished my course, thought that was great, but now what am I going to do? Then I got a phone call about two months later saying they [NFL] had made a new position for me.
I was a long time fan. I actually applied to two different things – one was FC Barcelona and the other was the NFL. In both cases they didn’t have opportunities, but in both cases I got offers purely because I tried something different. I chose the NFL over Barcelona because I’m a bigger fan of NFL. More importantly, it was a more challenging business, so dominant in the States, but internationally it had room for growth.
We will find out in the future. I think the way to look at it is in stages. Back in 2006 when we set up this office, I would go round telling the media we would do regular-season games. The vast majority of people would question the wisdom of it, said that it would be difficult to pull off. So, when we did the first game in 2007 it was completely in the unknown. It’s not like we have other sports that have done a similar type of thing with a competitive game and managed to pull it off.
The next stage is to see whether you can build your fan base substantially. We’ve doubled the fan base in the last five years since we’ve been playing the game. We’ve now got TV relationships with SKY, ESPN Channel 4 and BBC, so we’re pretty well spread in terms of that. But, for us to be ambitious in this market, we probably have to triple our fan base from where we’re at now. The logic behind it is, if you have a returning team, you can plan ahead rather than have six to seven months to turn round a game. You can also attract new fans that at least get to see a team that is familiar. They start hearing the same player names and other things. It allows you to see whether you can grow the sport to the next stage because if we carried on doing the same model, now that we have proved internally that the whole thing works, then where does it actually lead? You just would be going from team to team, but there needs to be a purpose to it.
The honest answer was I didn’t know, it was out of my hands. It is a good reminder to all of us, including me, that we shouldn’t take games for granted and there is a massive amount of work behind the scenes, particularly for a league that A) the home team only plays eight games in a season, which is incredibly small and B) a league so massive in the States. Super Bowl ratings are five times the size of American Idol’s final episode, which is mind-blowing in terms of the penetration the NFL has. For us to get games to come over and go through the legal hurdles that we need to can be a real challenge. In previous years it was all behind the scenes, this year was a sequencing problem that became public knowledge. But, it does remind me and hopefully the fan base we should continue to be grateful that we got this experience because it allows us to enjoy the sport in the flesh.
How many tickets have you sold for this year’s event so far?
Currently we have sold 65,000, which is really good. The sequencing is that we then have to offer tickets to the Rams and the Patriots fan base in the States because there are season ticket holders, particularly for the Rams and any home team that have bought them for eight games. Now they will be charged for seven, but it is only fair that they will be given the opportunity. Over the next few months we will allow that to take place and then in September we will sell whatever we have left. It will be another sell out and I’m really thankful for that.
It’s too early to say. It certainly won’t happen in the next four or five years because we still need to prove quite a few things and we do need to grow the fan base. I think we’re closer to it than we started because we could have had a first game and have it not gone well, but I think the most important thing we need to appreciate is how dominant the NFL is as an American sport. It’s bigger than all the other major sports combined. Every metric is astounding. If we were to put an international team based in London into the domestic league in the States, it will have to be in a way that we were absolutely certain it will work perfectly because you can’t risk the success in the States by doing an experiment over here. If we do everything right in the next three or four years we stand a very good chance, but we have quite a way to go.