Alistair Kirkwood Q&A

NFL UK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood has answered your questions on the International Series game at Wembley Stadium and on a host of other subjects including NFL Gamepass, television coverage in the United Kingdom and the possibility of a British NFL franchise.

As nfluk.com received six or seven emails on the ticketing process for the Buccaneers-Bears game at Wembley Stadium, we have taken one example but also used that to allow Alistair to address a lot of other issues surrounding the sales process.

Hi Alistair,

Prompted by the most recent NFLUK email, I wanted to write and express my frustration at the ticketing process for this year's International Series game. Whilst I welcome the addition of the dedicated family seating area, it was initially only available in the very front rows of the lower tier, in seats that have been advertised as restricted view in previous years.

Eager to get our tickets straight away and avoid missing out, we chose to sit elsewhere in the stadium, with children who would qualify for the discounted ticket price, in the £60 upper tier corner seats.

I am very disappointed to now learn that this area, and others in the stadium are now part of an expanded family area that was initially unavailable as part of the discounted ticket price. Through no fault of our own, we have effectively paid an additional £42.50 for a child's ticket in a section of the stadium that is now advertising cheaper tickets for children. It feels like we have been punished for being some of the first and keenest fans to buy their tickets.

As in previous years, I purchased seats within five minutes of them going on sale, this will be my 5th International Series game and I look forward to attending many more in the future. This sudden change in ticket policy has left rather a bitter taste in the mouth however it doesn't feel like a transparent process at all. Had you offered this discounted rate in other areas of the stadium (with in my opinion, a better view of the game), then it's quite possible that we would have brought extra children along to the game, to take advantage of the reduced price, and also introduce more youngsters to the sport - surely this is the point?

As it is however, due to financial constraints, we could not afford to buy additional children's tickets in the £60 area, so young people that would have loved to experience an NFL game at Wembley Stadium will now not get to do so this year.

I appreciate that the lockout severely reduced the opportunity to sell tickets over a longer period this year, and judging by the continual adverts on TV, on Twitter and in newspapers, there are still plenty of tickets to shift. I don't appreciate the feeling that I have of a loyal fan being taken advantage of.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this matter.

That aside, I do think NFLUK in general do an excellent job to promote the sport in this country, securing TV deals on four different channels and regularly getting International Series games.

Kind Regards
Joe Goodwin

Joe, there’s a fine balance between giving as much background information as possible and coming across as defensive. Hopefully, in answering these questions it will be more the former rather than the latter.

Taking the ticketing process as a whole, let’s look at the sequencing of getting the game confirmed, which ends up heavily impacting the sales process.

Every year that we’ve been doing the International Series we have known the team match-ups in November or December of the previous year and we’ve been able to announce to the public soon afterwards. And with the exception of the very first game (where the Registry of Interest took place in January and the initial sale was in April), we’ve  sold the vast majority of tickets by around Super Bowl.

This past year, not only were potential team identities unknown, but the prospect of actually getting a game was substantially diminished given the looming CBA negotiations.

Around March, as we were planning for various scenarios including the loss or partial loss of the season, the League offered the UK office an opportunity to have another game, subject to the CBA being resolved this season. This was on the back of the success of the previous four International Series games. Tampa graciously agreed to being the home team and from this office’s perspective, given none of us knew how long the CBA discussions would last, it was incredibly important to have a team who knew all of the elements in putting the game on and playing in London. The learning curve for teams who have never been here before is just too high. We remain very pleased that Tampa stepped up.

Prior to the NFL Draft and the announcement of the season schedule we had to confirm the provisional game taking place in London, even though none of us knew for sure whether it would take place or under what conditions. At that stage of the planning process the most important aspect of trying to secure the game was to try and replicate as many of the conditions surrounding the previous games. For example, the Registry of Interest, ticket prices and sequencing.

The only recommendation which was different to previous years was the introduction of the Family Zone. There was a feeling we needed to do more to encourage younger fans to get into the sport and enjoy the atmosphere, but given the need to keep as much of the game model in line with previous games as well as uncertainty as to the success of the Family Zone we chose to institute it on a modest basis in one part of the stadium and test it as a scheme.

When we conditionally announced the game around Easter none of us knew when we would be confirming the game post-CBA or indeed if the CBA resolution would be done in time to allow this. Had the CBA been delayed by a matter of a few more days, the game would not have gone ahead.

With the benefit of hindsight, the latest possible announcement at the beginning of August combined with a challenging economy has made this year’s game much more difficult to organise than in previous years.

From March to August I will admit that the vast majority of focus was on trying to secure a game rather than evaluating contingencies should it not be as successful as its predecessors.

Now to start addressing specific points and complaints, the vast majority of which I think are very valid and are being taken seriously.

Family Zone

We did sell out the complete allocation on the morning of going on sale. We had received a lot of correspondence in the days after that with people saying they had been excited by the new initiative but were frustrated they had missed out.

Combining the fact that we have certain sections of the stadium that are proving to be much more problematic to sell than in previous years, with this demand in Family Zone tickets, it seemed like a no-brainer to extend this initiative to another specific part of the stadium.

This is as much a test case as to whether the initiative works and can be incorporated into future games. I appreciate that the extension of the scheme not being communicated earlier will mean that many people have been disappointed. But we didn’t know we were going to extend it until we made the late decision to do so. Had we known earlier, we would have communicated it.

There are probably as many people happy that the Family Zone has been extended as there are people who are disappointed.
Sales process

We’ve been flummoxed by some of the sales patterns surrounding this game. In the same way as an offense can be surprised by multiple blitzes the only way to get through is to make adjustments. Unfortunately for some of you there have therefore been a bunch of audibles called and it’s not always been clear and transparent as to why. I have three main objectives coming into any game:

1) The teams are happy with all the logistical arrangements and do not see the London game as a punishment. Instead, they see it as an extension to their season and since we’ve started this initiative, the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Wes Welker have all been very complimentary. We’ve also have very good feedback from traditionally demanding head coaches such as Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin.

2) That the fans have a great experience and that we keep adding to the week of game and try new things. Last year we had the Fan Rally and Commissioner Fan forum, this year we have the Friday Night Lights event in Trafalgar Square, the UK Talent Camp in Greenwich, the Fan Rally in London and the Tailgate Party at Wembley Stadium. We are also working hard to give fans unique access to some of the biggest names in the sport such as Jerome Bettis and Terrell Owens, a Hall of Famer in Richard Dent and a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in Brad Johnson.

3) That the league in New York continues to believe that the UK is a primary location for playing regular season games here on an ongoing basis.

All three are as important as each other and you can’t have two out of three in order to keep this thing going. If our attendance underwhelms, irrespective of understandable factors then questions about the future might arise so there’s a very difficult balancing act in living in the present while being custodians of the future.

Of the people that registered their interest, only 26 per cent have gone on to buy tickets - this is much lower than in previous years because we didn’t go on sale until seven weeks before the start of the game. When you see something as startling as that statistic there is not a lot of time to make adjustments.

I think it’s important to recognise that more than 80 per cent of British fans who attend our games come from all over the country and outside of London and the south-east. I appreciate that the ticket price is only one component of making a decision to come to the game and with the likes of half-term starting during game weekend many people will have made plans over that period when they would not necessarily had if a game had been confirmed back in January.

We still haven’t got the rationale to explain some of those stats but it is part of the reason as to why you have seen more effort by this office in the past weeks because the initial sale was slow. All that being said, at the time of writing, we have three weeks to go before the game and if we end up with an attendance in the mid-to-high 70,000 that will constitute one of the best attended NFL games that weekend and I believe will be a great testament to the ongoing passion of British fans for the sport despite such a late confirmation of the game.

Add to the mix the economy and a few other factors not in our favour, then I believe we will end up in a good place despite the circumstances, but maybe not as well as I had forecast or had anticipated back in April when deciding to go for this game.

Discounts

The discount is only available in one part of the stadium and targeted solely to those who have bought tickets before. As the initial Registry of Interest sale underwhelmed, we were not sure whether awareness of the game was the biggest issue. In the last two weeks we’ve continually been a top-five selling event on Ticketmaster and have sold well on a daily rate, but not quite at the level to get to sell-out status given the shorter time period.

Offering discounts in a closed manner is a normal practice across all events, admittedly this is something we have not used before but we are trying different things in order to succeed. If the discount had been to the general public and with no conditions and across all ticket prices I believe that would have been much more contentious than one ticket price to one part of the stadium aimed at fans of previous who have already gone to previous games and may not be aware of this game. I apologise if any of you feel frustrated, let down by the process. Looking at the bigger picture I’m trying to ensure that we continue to have a rosy future. If we don’t try a few different things in a controlled manner in what is a challenging series of events then I think you would feel even more frustrated and let down that every stone wasn’t being turned.

Pre-sale PIN codes

Some fans who buy first have not always ended up necessarily being best treated. It is not intentional by any means, but is an unfortunate occurrence of where we have got to. What worked for us in 2007 probably needs some evaluation going forward. Once we have got through this game, we will do some research with fans and ticket buyers and we will try to develop a better and fairer system. I doubt there is a perfect system out there but we can and should improve on the current one.

The specific conditions related to this game are very unlikely to be repeated. Future games will have a smoother process, more in line with previous games and will favour those who buy early.

Dear Alistair

Why am I paying the full price of NFL Gamepass to not only have games blacked out I want to watch, but also to wait six days later to watch that game. Its ludicrous. Other countries in Europe do not have games blacked out but also receive NFL Redzone on top of that. I feel it is very unfair that us fans in the UK do not receive the full package of NFL Gamepass.
Will there be any steps in the future to rectify these issues?

Adam

Adam, I have an answer but not necessarily one which will keep you happy. Every broadcast market is different. In the same way that a 3pm Premier League game can be seen in the Middle East, but cannot be watched here, there are challenges in trying to make as many things available to as many people as possible. This is no different than a fan in Chicago not being able to watch his Bears on the NFL Sunday Ticket package because that game is blacked out in his local market.

As you try to balance exposing the game on TV to as wide a group of people while giving broad and deep coverage to the most avid fans, occasionally you hit road blocks as to terms and conditions that allow you to show everything in the way that you like. Technology keeps changing and the broadcast environment keeps changing as well so there may be opportunities going forward to improve at where we are at but not for this season.

We are the only country in Europe to show live games on free-to-air television in addition to subscription TV. Being able to show games to fans who are unable to subscribe to pay television makes this broadcast combination very important to us.

In order to achieve that, something else has to give. Under our current contract agreement we do have Game Pass blackouts that some countries don’t have but we have freed up pay exclusivity issues to allow for free to air games that other countries do not have so it’s case of swings and roundabouts and I am of the belief that our mix is better than any other European country.

Dear Alistair,

While I do appreciate the NFL is a business and they do want to make money, I am bemused as to how TV deals are handled with regard to the UK TV market.

Surely it is in the best interests of the NFL to grow the game in the UK by having a live game on FREE terrestrial TV at 6pm on a Sunday evening?  Surely the exposure of a live game on terrestrial TV would give better viewing figures than those gained on SKY. More viewers = more interest in the game/products. More viewers = happy advertisers.

I would also like to see a highlights programme on terrestrial TV.

Many thanks

Dave Shorters

Dave, it’s not primarily a money issue which prevents us from having 6pm games on terrestrial TV. If we went to one of the five main channels and gave them the programming and paid them £5 million per year, they would still refuse to show it, I promise you - for two reasons. Although our ratings perform as well as any sport and so far this season we are the seventh most watched sport on Sky. Live sport outside of top level football and major events do not get shown on major TV because the ratings are not as strong and the production costs are much more expensive than most programming that goes into those time slots.
The second reason is that our game lasts three hours in duration, which is a massive amount of primetime coverage. ITV has the X-Factor and the BBC has Strictly Come Dancing while other stations will get a couple of million people watching film re-runs and other reality shows. Plus revenue streams from advertising means that there is not a financial rational for most sports to be covered, never mind ours. To be honest retaining Sunday Night Football on free to air television has been an ongoing challenge and taken months of negotiations to keep on and that’s at time slots that are not as attractive. Commercial stations make so much money from quiz phone-ins and teleshopping programming.

A highlights show on terrestrial TV remains a number one initiative but getting a half decent time slot is a huge challenge. This year because of the CBA delay we were not able to advance highlight negotiations with any partners. In 2010 the best offer was 7am on a Saturday morning and we passed on that opportunity since the audiences would have been so low it may have damaged the likelihood of future terrestrial programming for a long time.

Hello Alistair

I'd like to know of the possibilities of a UK allocation of tickets for the Superbowl. It’s a dream of mine to go – let’s make it at least possible

Shani

Shani, there are allocations available to fans irrespective of where they are from, through the likes of Thomson Sport and NFL on Location. But it is just the nature of the event that there are not really cheap Super Bowl tickets available, no matter where you are from. With Indianapolis having one of the smallest stadiums in the NFL it will mean getting tickets for this year’s Super Bowl will be as challenging as ever.

Alistair

What are the chances of having an NFL franchise in London? If so will it be an expansion team, or will a team relocate?

Matthew Baldwin

Matthew, it’s a concept which interests a lot of people but I still think it is a period away. I think we need to continue put on successful games and grow our fan base before we can get to a stage where it is fully evaluated and it is only then that a potential team and its model could be fully discussed.