Alistair Kirkwood- Managing Director, NFL UK Share PDF Print E-mail
Profile of the week
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.
What attracted you to the NFL?
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.
One of most intriguing parts of the NFL game in London is that supporters turn up in various jerseys, so is having the St Louis Rams playing a regular season game at Wembley for the next three years the right strategy to build the brand?
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 a 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.
Did the questions about St Louis Rams stadium deal ever put the Wembley game in doubt?
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.
Can we expect a London franchise?
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.
Do you think it would be possible to have a game of greater significance played at Wembley?
I first threw that idea to the previous commissioner a few years ago at an airport. I got probably the most telling look that anybody’s ever given me that just basically said that I was an absolute idiot. The biggest hurdle back then felt like getting teams to give up a home game. So, I said why not play a wildcard game and quite rightly I was told you can’t mess with the mechanism of the league. A team in the playoffs who have a home game, whether it’s because their record leading up the playoffs or how they played the previous week, should be rewarded with a home game.
What is the NFL doing at the grass roots level outside of USA to ensure that this is a game for all nationalities?
We’re doing a few things. I’ll be honest, it’s not the focal point of what we do, the focal point is a top down strategy. Put games on, surround them with an exciting week of events and then maximise our TV coverage throughout the season because ultimately we are a TV sport. We are a sport which is difficult to play technically. You also need quite a few players as well. We’ve made a lot of progress with our amateur federation on growing the sport here. You’ve got more than 70 University teams from across the UK, which is great. But, we have for the first time, an all party parliamentary group of MPs that are looking after the interests of American Football, working with that federation. We’ve played a part in making that happen. The federation themselves are investing a lot through funding the NFL provides centrally to growing the sport as well. But, we’re not doing a lot in terms of helping kids playing the sport at mass levels.
Is the NFL attractive to sponsors outside of USA?
For the Wembley game, we got ten different sponsors. It’s a mix of local (UK) sponsors doing great activation levels, doing perimeter advertising and getting involved in a lot of our events outside of Wembley. We also have three or four US based sponsors as well because what’s interesting about our sport is that we are the cleanest professional sport in terms of advertising. When you look on the field, you don’t have any logos on the uniforms. If you look at any American based game, you don’t have any perimeter advertising, there’s nothing on the field.
We’re unusual because we are the only game in the NFL with perimeter advertising. I think we are attractive to sponsors as a result because we have the most popular game played in America. Here’s an opportunity for them to differentiate and get their brand name out there in a way they wouldn’t be able to do normally.
What social media and digital media strategies do you adopt?
First of all we have our own website. We have a database of around 312,000 people now, which is really valuable for us and most of our ticket sales activity come from that database. The website itself allows us to get content out there that’s slightly different from a US audience. We have a good Facebook following. I think internationally we currently have 1.2 million Facebook followers of the NFL. We also have game pass, which is our digital offering that allows you to see games in HD that are not shown on TV. So, we interweave our social media with things that are revenue streams on that side.
The other thing I am interested in is using digital media in particular to demystify the game and make things more accessible because if you look at US websites they are aimed at people who know what the sport is about. We have a website that we designed a year and a half ago called NFL360 that we’re integrating into our current website right now, which acts as a team picker, gives you the dummy’s guide to every team to star players, how you actually follow the sport to rules of the game and using video content in different ways. In many ways digital media and social media is important to, not only get people excited about what their doing, but for us because we’re still trying to grow a fan base, it’s also helping us to break down a few barriers as well.
Will NFL stadia develop to enhance fan experience?
They are trying some really interesting things at the moment. Every year I’m impressed by the advances. I think the challenge is nobody can quite forecast what the stadium experience will be like. But, if you go to the Super Bowl everyone gets a radio so that they can listen into the game commentary. You’ve got parts of the stadium depending on what team you go to, where they’ve got in their premium seats a device that not only allows you to get every form of statistics, but you can also watch the game in four or five different angles. There are so many different things like that out there. I think one of the great things about the NFL is that they’ve never been afraid to innovate and try new things. I think stadium experience over the next few years will be the focal point going forward.
The NFL is experiencing immense TV growth in the UK over recent years. Do you think you should add more games to terrestrial TV to engage more fans or is the Sky coverage sufficient enough to get the audience growth you want?
Sky have done a excellent job for us. They have been with us since 1994. In many ways you can argue that all top sports now are in Sky. They give you a substantial volume. Terrestrial is important because it allows you to go that audience that haven’t subscribed yet to pay TV and for those audiences who are just channel flicking as well. Channel Four’s attraction, particularly for students, is important for us because they may be in halls of residence where you can’t get sky.
You can’t expect to be on terrestrial TV and get hundreds of hours of sport. It’s a too crammed a market. You even see that soccer in this market isn’t on terrestrial that often. It’s both unrealistic and unlikely that we could do a lot more. I like to see if we can develop highlight programs and bite size stuff, so I’m interested in doing that on free-to-air. But, if anything, I want to do more and more with pay TV because that gives you an opportunity with so many different channels to get your sport out there in as many different ways as possible. It’s a real balancing act, but the balance has been good so far.
What is your goal for NFL UK, where do you see this organisation in 10 years?
I’d like us to be a top three sport. We’ll never take over from soccer and we have no aspirations to do so. I’d like us to be somewhere around cricket and rugby if we had a team here because we would be a big stadium sport selling out 85,000 every single week. I’d like to think we’d have massive TV audiences that will be comparable to how we are in the States. I like to have a few British players playing in that team also. That would be my pipe dream. Were closer to getting there over the last five years, but we’ve got a long way to go.
What do you make of the iSportconnect concept?
I think it’s really good. I’ve been on the website and have been daunted by seeing all these interviews and going there’s no way I can match up with a lot of those profile announcers. There’s lot of opportunities for us to connect with other sports leaders and other sports bodies to try and learn the best practice, so your website and what you’re trying to do is a really good source of information.
Kirkwood Cropped

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.  

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.


What attracted you to the NFL?

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.


One of most intriguing parts of the NFL game in London is that supporters turn up in various jerseys, so is having the St Louis Rams playing a regular season game at Wembley for the next three years the right strategy to build the brand?

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.


Did the questions about St Louis Rams stadium deal ever put the Wembley game in doubt?

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.


Can we expect a London franchise? 

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.

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