Sportel America: NFL, MP & Silva Team Up To Spread the Gospel of American Football in Europe

Earlier this month, MP & Silva inked a landmark deal to represent the NFL in its media-rights negotiations for 42 territories across Europe. The five-year, reportedly $500 million agreement signals a changing of the guard for the NFL’s mainland Europe strategy as MP & Silva replaces IMG, which previously repped the league in the region. During the opening session at Sportel America, the NFL and MP & Silva detailed their combined vision of how to grow the league’s European presence in the coming half decade and the greatest challenges they face today.

NBC, NFL, MP & Silva

From left: Mark Waller, EVP, international, NFL; Moderator Richard Horrow, sports business analyst, NBC; Daniel Cohen, SVP, Americas, MP & Silva

“We are blessed, because we are the America sport, with high awareness and, generally speaking, high interest,” said Mark Waller, EVP, international, NFL. “So there is an inherent interest and desire to understand the game. But then, there is a massive barrier, which is [not understanding the game]. I remember the first game I watched and I had no idea where the ball was going to go. That is frustrating. That is the barrier we have to solve. How do you make it aspirational, while also making it easy to digest?”

Local vs. Centralized Content Production
Waller revealed that the NFL is currently developing plans to produce a globally focused weekly highlights show in an effort to educate and draw in casual fans in foreign countries. However, the question of whether to produce the show centrally out of NFL Media headquarters in Culver City, CA, or locally in the respective nations to better customize the program is an internal point of contention.

“Is it best done centrally, where we can leverage the scale and talent we have at NFL Media? Or is it best done on a local-market basis? There are strong arguments for both,” he said. “I suspect we will end up starting with something central to test and make sure that the concept stands up. Then, at a relatively early point in the game, we will transition into a local-production model.”

MP & Silva sees this localization element as key to its role in growing the NFL brand throughout the heavily diverse and segmented continent of Europe.

“In the U.S., you can create a demographic pretty easily for an NFL fan and how they consume the sport in San Francisco vs. Seattle or Boise, but, in Europe, you are dealing with such varying cultures and mentalities that localization is huge,” noted Daniel Cohen, SVP, Americas, MP & Silva. “I think one of the things that we bring to the table is our local-market knowledge: having salespeople and research analysts knowing what the differences are in these regions and how to attack each region.”

Cohen referenced Belgium, which is split almost evenly between French-speaking and Flemish-speaking populations with different cultures, as an example of the sizable obstacles facing the NFL in appealing to the European masses. In the end, whether to offer more-localized or globalized content must be decided on a case-to-case basis.

“Some regions, an NFL-branded in-house production may be the right thing, but, in other regions, a local-designed, local-language product [might be best]. It might be digital vs. free-to-air vs. pay-TV. Each country in Europe is so uniquely different that a different strategy [is required].”

Brazil, Asia Among Top NFL Global Targets
In terms of regions that rank as top priorities for expansion, Waller pointed to Canada and Latin America as key drivers, given the corresponding time zones that would allow the league to deliver games live during normal viewing hours. Specifically, Waller cited Brazil as a potential growth spot for the league’s international presence.

“Brazil is just an amazing sports market, and that is a great opportunity for us,” said Waller. “You saw what happened with World Cup; you know what is going to happen for the Olympics will be extraordinary. At the end of it, that is a market that is going to have an incredible sports infrastructure, which is critically important to us.”

In addition, he noted that, by holding its International Series game at London’s Wembley Stadium in the early, 1:30 p.m. GMT window, the league opens the door to live viewing in Asia.

“The more we can do live in Europe, the better it positions us to give the Asian market more direct live access to [the NFL],” said Waller. “We saw the first of it last year when we played the early game in [London]. The beauty of that early game is that it not only [allowed] UK fans to go to the stadium and get home [at a decent hour]; we also got our largest Asian audience ever — particularly in China.”

With that in mind, all three London games during the 2015 season will kick off in the early window.

Beyond Germany and the UK
Although the deal does not include the NFL’s primary European hubs in Germany and the UK, MP & Silva sees huge opportunities for growth buried in the rest of Europe.

“I think that there are a ton of opportunities that are undervalued across Europe right now,” said Cohen. “There are France, Spain, the key players, and the NFL has already done a terrific job in those markets. But you look at some of the other countries — Italy, for example — where you see a growing fan base. There are particular countries that we work closely with the NFL to identify as markets that are grossly undervalued, and we think we will be able to elevate those.”