Visitors to London in late October might have been surprised to see Regent Street, home to traditional British brands like Burberry and Hamley's, transformed into a full-on celebration of Americana. The street was closed to traffic and festooned with the Stars and Stripes, not to mention cheerleaders and the Ohio State marching brand, as the NFL held an exuberant street party promoting its International Series at Wembley Stadium.
The event, actually now in its third year, saw appearances from NFL stars such as Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Fred Taylor as well as opportunities for visitors to try their skills at what some Brits dub "rugby with helmets."
It's all part of the NFL's increasing efforts to popularize so-called "American" football in the U.K, where official in-season games first arrived in 2007. This year the league increase the number of London contests to three from one: The Miami Dolphins battled the New York Jets, the Buffalo Bills took on the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Detroit Lions played the Kansas City Chiefs, all at a time amenable to U.K. viewing, the equivalent of morning in the U.S.
Meanwhile, NFL is increasing its mainstream TV and digital exposure. As well as the 103 NFL games per year shown on Sky TV's pay channels in the U.K., the NFL announced a new deal with the BBC in September to show games plus a highlights show, "Race to Super Bowl 50." The Super Bowl itself also moves from Channel 4 to the BBC -- although it will still kick off around 11:30 at night.
In terms of numbers, the most recent Super Bowl only attracted an audience of 3.5 million on Channel 4. According to NFL U.K., some 13 million people watched NFL programming last season.
In another sign of its seriousness about the U.K. market, the NFL earlier this year brought over Sarah Swanson, formerly VP of marketing for NFL Network in L.A., to be head of marketing at NFL U.K. "We're trying to move from a niche sport to a mainstream," Ms. Swanson said. "We spend a lot of time trying to move from being about a few games to being about becoming part of the conversation."
Part of this transformation has included an investment in digital. The NFL's U.K. website has added content including a "Rookie's Guide" aimed at Brits, with animated videos explaining the rules.
As the NFL increases its own efforts, some of its international sponsors are also increasing marketing activity around the sport. "Our partners are really helping us to tell our story now," Ms. Swanson said. At the international games in Wembley, Pepsi Max advertised its presence with a vending machine stunt called the "Oomph-o-meter," which encouraged Brits to show American-style enthusiasm in return for free drinks.
Budweiser and Gatorade have been promoting NFL games on their packaging, while Papa John's ran a TV ad featuring Peyton Manning promoting an offer titled "50 for 50" during the international games. (Consumers spending £15 could get 50% off if any of the NFL U.K. games had a combined score of 50 points or more.) Ms. Swanson said such sponsors are helping to make people like Mr. Manning, who would have been unheard-of in the U.K. just a few years ago, into "household names. "
Budweiser also ran a promotion across 100 bars in the UK, and a partnership with Five Guys saw each of the chain's 32 locations in the U.K. paired with one of the NFL's 32 teams.
Ninety-five percent of the stadium turnout has been British, according to Ms. Swanson. "People have this perception that it's full of expats, but in fact it's a U.K. fan base," she said.
But perhaps the real key to NFL's future success in the U.K. lies at White Hart Lane, home to Tottenham Hotspur FC. The NFL's recently-announced deal with the team sees it taking a stake in the club's forthcoming gigantic new stadium to host NFL games there starting in 2018.
Another three-year deal to host games at England's rugby headquarters at Twickenham starting next year 2016 was also announced last week.
"We realize that we will never be bigger than soccer or rugby here," Ms. Swanson said, "but we know we can attract an mainstream audience alongside those sports."