Meet the Member: “We have set ourselves the target of becoming a top three sport among 12 to 24-year-olds”
March 1, 2023
The NFL as a sport is growing massively in the UK, all of the 32 franchises have come over and played here since 2007. They are looking to continue to grow with a particular focus on young people, to find out what they’re doing our Content Manager, Alex Brinton caught up with the NFL UK General Manager, Henry Hodgson.
Henry, you’ve been at the NFL since 2003. Tell us a bit about your journey from Digital Media Manager of NFL UK to now the General Manager?
My NFL journey actually started a little bit earlier than 2003 – I started as an intern back in 1996, but it was 2003 when I started working permanently for the NFL. After the league made a decision to bring NFL Europe to an end, I was part of the team that got the opportunity to pitch for and deliver the first game in the UK.
After working on a few London Games, I was really lucky to get the opportunity to take a role for the NFL in the US working on the NFL’s digital properties. After six or seven years of that I got approached to work on the international side again, but from Los Angeles which was great. I was able to take up a position leading the global marketing for the NFL with the aim of growing the global fan base.
Then, last summer I got the opportunity to come back to the UK and take up the General Manager position, bringing me full circle.
How has the sport changed in the UK in that time?
It has changed a lot, it is pretty unrecognizable. People were definitely still aware of the NFL back in 1996 and there was a pretty avid fan base back from the 80s when the sport was on Channel 4. But I think the sport had become very niche. That has certainly changed over the last few years with the London Games helping to broaden the audience, along with efforts to make the sport more accessible and more local.
We really wanted to help people in the UK find the sport and then once they’ve found it, try to get them to fall in love with it. A testament to the work that’s been done up until now is that you’ve seen the fan base increase, you’ve seen the viewership increase, you’ve seen the engagement across digital and social channels, plus increases in participation.
All of those things are the factors that are going to make the sport more popular and more of a fixture in the UK sporting calendar. And that’s where the focus has been.
The first game in the UK was in 2007, how easy was it to convince the NFL to do that and tell us a bit about the planning process?
All the credit for the vision to do it and then work leading the team that executed it has to go to Alistair Kirkwood who was the Managing Director of NFL UK at the time. He was the visionary that said, ‘let’s try and do this’ and he put in a lot of the work to convince leadership in the US that playing a game in London needed to happen to accelerate the growth of the sport.
We still had a relatively small team then, so we all had to put in a great deal of work into the planning process for the first game. It went really well, but it was a lot of work to get it over the line.
It got such an amazing reception from the people in the UK and we were thrilled when we found out we were going to get the chance to do it again in 2008. One of the biggest things was taking the learnings from the first game and working out how we would make the next one better.
That’s been our approach year-on-year really, looking into how we can incrementally improve every aspect of it. We really want to make sure that the fans who come to the games are getting the best experience you can have at a sporting event. We have also put so much work into making sure the games reach further than the fans that are in the stadiums and extend our impact.
Obviously over time the amount of games in the UK has increased, and are now hosted at both Wembley and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. How much appetite is there still for NFL games in the UK?
I think there is a gigantic appetite, and that goes back to that first game where 500,000 people registered their interest in buying tickets. We continue to do these registry of interests and we have built to a point where not long after we announced the three London games for this year we had enough demand to sell out all the games.
Last season, the Green Bay Packers came over and they were the 32nd and final team to come and play over here. I’m not sure we would have believed you in 2007 if you told us every single team would come over here and play over the 15 years.
We also now have this amazing partnership with Tottenham, where we have committed to playing two matches a year at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and through that this partnership will only continue to grow.
So the demand hasn’t dropped off at all really. And the evolution continued further last year with the Jacksonville Jaguars staging their first game over here on their own rather than it being an NFL-produced game. So you can clearly see what their intent is in trying to make their mark in the UK.
The time zones don’t make it the easiest watching for fans in the UK, other than having fixtures over here what tools have you used to grow the fan base?
We did a lot of work with Sky, who we have had a long-term partnership with dating back to 1995, during the off-season. We had a deep dive into viewership and really wanted to try and find out who more about the NFL’s viewership and perceptions of our programming on Sky’s standalone NFL channel.
One of the things that we needed to correct is the perception that the games are hard to watch. Because actually 6 o’clock on Sunday is the time that most of the games take place and I think if you asked most US sports what time they could choose to be on in Europe, they would probably pick that. Our work with Sky has definitely paid off because this year our viewership in the window has increased significantly.
We also have a great partnership with ITV which started this year, which is a great weekly magazine highlight show. We think this is a really strong way to bring people in because in an hour they cover all the fixtures that happened this week and give a great insight into what has happened in the sport.
We are really active and thoughtful about the content we place on our social media channels as well because we understand that that is where our new audience is and if we can bring young people in through social media that will help us grow.
One other way we want to grow our fan base is through participation. Flag football participation is increasing globally and it is a great way for kids to get an experience of the game and become fans of the NFL.
Over in the US most fans of the franchises will be concentrated in and around the city they play in, but in the UK they’re scattered around. How easy is it to know who your fans are?
We do market research all year round and that is really important for the way in which we are trying to grow as a sport. Whenever you make a purchase from the NFL, we ask you who you support. This enables us to completely personalize the content we are delivering for you. We can also see through our shop and through our direct-to-consumer offering, NFL Game Pass, which teams are being watched where.
The split is pretty interesting to be honest. The older fans fell in love with the teams who were good back in the 1980s like the Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers, while a lot of the younger fans support the New England Patriots because over the last few years they have been participating in the Super Bowl more than any other club.
You’ve been General Manager since July, what has surprised you about the position?
I came into the role with my eyes open having worked at the NFL for so long in a variety of roles. In my time away the amount of London games has increased from one to three, and the amount of work that goes into delivering them at such a high level was definitely eye-opening in my first few months.
I am extremely fortunate in that the NFL UK team is just fantastic, I need to take my hat off to them really. There’s between 40 and 50 of them and they work so hard to grow and engage our fanbase year-round. That is even more impressive when we are working on delivering the London games. It is kind of remarkable what a relatively small number of people can deliver and deliver to an incredibly high standard.
Looking forward, what can we expect to see from the NFL in the UK in the next few years?
Our focus is still really on growing our fan base in the UK, and we’ve set ourselves a target of becoming a top three sport amongst 12- to 24-year-olds in the UK. So we are myopic about how we reach and engage that younger audience. And really everything that we do is going to be filtered through that lens.
What are your commercial goals for NFL in the UK and how much support do you get from the main NFL office?
Our commercial goals aren’t that different to the fan engagement ones we just spoke about. If we increase our audience the value of our rights are going to be worth more and we become more attractive to partners.
What are the chances we get an NFL franchise over this side of the Atlantic in the future?
The idea of a franchise in the UK is something that has been talked about a lot ever since we first started playing games in London. We recently started a program that allowed NFL franchises to have their own international marketing rights for countries around the world that they want to focus on. There are six teams that selected the UK as their international HMA market, and they have all made a great impact – albeit in different ways – in the first 12 months of the program.
As I mentioned, one of those clubs, the Jacksonville Jaguars will play their 10th game in London later this year, a real landmark, and last year saw them play one of their own games over here for the first time. Around our London games Commissioner Roger Goodell talked about the idea of a European division of the NFL. And could you bring, not just one team, but potentially even four teams into Europe.
Could that happen? Yes it could definitely happen, and there is work being done now on the feasibility and various hurdles to get over. But I believe that the biggest thing is continuing to grow the fan base and engagement for the sport and put on high-quality live events. If we keep doing that, we have a real chance of making it happen.