As the USA’s finest sporting exports hit our shores, the resulting waves are washing over the wider UK events industry, spawning new approaches to audience engagement.
While Brits have long been obsessed with US culture, it’s only relatively recently that sporting mega-franchises such at the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (The NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and various pro wrestling brands have been a train – instead of a plane – ride away for the British public.
The combined billions these franchises generate in spend is being ploughed back into UK plc, and changing the business models of agencies venues and caterers.
As Mark Bustard, managing director of new experiential agency Nvisible puts it: “Globalisation of sport and the increase in demand for sporting experiences has driven innovation across all aspects of fan engagement and fan experience: from sports marketing to ticketing, to pre-game hype and audience interaction.
“Each and every aspect has developed due to increased consumer demand as part of the growth of the experience economy – and in response to growing competition from a wider range of leisure and entertainment activities. More than ever, sports are working harder for consumers and reaping the rewards.”
Indeed, the impact of American football alone has been significant for the events industry and consumer choice. David Tossell, NFL director of public affairs (UK and Europe), tells Access that the NFL is increasingly becoming part of the UK landscape.
“Not only have we staged 24 sold-out regular-season games in London since 2007, but we now have two weekly NFL shows on BBC television and more than 100 live games aired every season on Sky Sports. A total of 25 million unique individuals watched some NFL programming during the 2017-18 season.
“We have also established a strong reputation for staging large-scale fan events, including taking over Regent Street, Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square, and we regularly tour the country with NFL UK Live theatre shows. In addition, we have a growing grass-roots programme, with more than 10,000 young children a year playing NFL Flag in schools in various cities.
“We are constantly looking at ways to reach new audiences and our fan base is getting younger all the time – a combination of hardcore avid fans and those who are attracted more by the experiential elements of the sport.”
The MLB London Series is another example of how sports can impact and leverage on cultural touchpoints. Bustard says: “MLB will be the one to watch in 2019, with the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox bringing their intense rivalry to new ground at the London Stadium in June.
“With this will come a whole package of fan engagement linked to the cities and baseball culture: celebrity, music, art, film and fashion. It will be integrated sports and entertainment.”
Levy UK is among the event suppliers embracing the new models that American sports are creating. Tom Ford, head of marketing, Levy UK, tells Access that the arrival of the NFL at its partner venues including Twickenham Stadium (which hosted games in 2016/17) and the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium (at which The NFL has confirmed its first two games as part of the 2019 London Games Series) has provided a welcome re-think of how food is approached.
“The American catering model is about ‘premium informality’, and it’s a style we’ve used at the various NFL games we catered. Typically this will involve roaming bowl food and the integration of the dining experience as part of the overall game experience – bearing in mind that the games can be an all-day experience. There’s also efforts to provide low alcohol beverages to promote drinking responsibly.
“Of course, the UK audience were considered, and we were careful to merge American traditions with UK tastes to create a hybrid offering that appeal to fans internationally. Certainly though, this is a break from traditional, formal British three-course dining.”
Speaking about the wider impact of Americanised UK events, Ford says that the UK sporting market has learnt from its US-counterparts.
“We’ve seen a shift towards the ‘total fan experience’, mapping out the customer journey with extreme care, and making sure it is as smooth as possible right down to the simple things. For example, staff held all the doors open for fans at the end of the Atlanta Falcons match, and they wave everyone goodbye.”
He adds that this, and other aspects, can be met with cynicism or sarcasm by UK audiences, but the tide is changing. “If your team just lost 2-0 to West Ham, some English fans wouldn’t embrace this tradition, but we’re moving towards greater control of every element of the customer experience.
“This will include the use of things like beacon technology, and food menus that tie into the overall theme. The Americans have also helped drive an ethos to treat visiting fans with the same courtesy as home fans. This is about showing-off what a great venue you are visiting in its own right.”
Another trend Ford picked up on is ‘tailgating’, the US definition of which is very different to the UK’s. “Tailgating, in the states, is about grilling on the back of pickup trucks, with BBQs and hungry fans gathered in a car park.
“Practically speaking, this is far more difficult in the UK as our venues are often pretty much in people’s back gardens, instead of out of town like in the US. However, we’re looking to incorporate alternative options.
“At Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium, for example, we’re looking to provide a street food marketplace and a massive bar to use as a hub, open to everyone on match day, with squares outside allotted for such activity. Other venues have provided similar elements – for example, there’s been a pop-up festival at Twickenham Stadium which provides a hub of activity.”
Bustard agrees with Ford that the term ‘Americanisation’ can be misleading. “You could call this Americanisation, but it’s much more,” says Bustard. “T20, Golf and Darts are great examples. In 2019 we’ll see the ICC CWC will take the opportunity to transcend the sporting experience, connecting with a wider audience and leveraging the opportunity to connect with next generation fans and leave a legacy.
“I would expect F1 will continue under the stewardship of Liberty to forge connections with fans through initiatives such as F1 Live, taking the raw excitement and energy of F1 to new audiences and changing their demographic from die-hard to new fans, working alongside initiatives in digital and broadcast. Innovation is everywhere.
He adds: “We should be careful of the phrase ‘Americanisation’ and also acknowledge Australia, global sports and tournaments as great examples of innovation and delivering an improved, integrated and all together more entertaining experience for fans.”
Meanwhile, the NFL’s Tossell tells Access that the notion of ‘Americanising’ doesn’t factor into the organisation’s thinking when planning their wide-ranging events. It is clear however, that interest in US sports is spreading world-wide.
Heidi Hayes, director of communications at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority tells Access: “With a growing roster of A-list games and activities, Las Vegas is quickly transforming into the ultimate sports haven.
“The destination is now home to several professional teams and organisations including the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and, in 2020, the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders.
“On top of our delectable gastronomy, world-class entertainment and iconic resorts, this growing sport scene provides yet another reason for visitors to come and enjoy Las Vegas, be it for business or for pleasure. We are already seeing a rise in international attendance to these sporting fixtures, and we can only see this continuing to grow in the coming years.”
What this means for organisers is fresh potential for innovation. Bustard says: “You can see this in the wider scope of live events broadcasting with content becoming more dynamic. Live multi-camera broadcast now includes far more pre-packaged content and cut-aways than ever before. As an events organiser this is new ground and producers need to think, plan and deliver for reduced attention spans.“
American sports have enriched the event mix for the consumer, and prompted our suppliers and venues to consider new ways to entice and engage people.