Ahead of the 2022 NFL season, and amid the league’s drive for internationalization, 19 NFL franchises were granted international marketing rights for a variety of global territories. Of that 21, six franchises gained marketing rights covering the whole of the UK (rights held by the Pittsburgh Steelers only cover Northern Ireland), one of the NFL’s biggest target markets internationally.

The Global Markets Program, in its second year in 2023, grew from 19 franchises to 21, in step with the expansion of the number of international games, and the number of markets too increased from 10 to 14. Through it, sides are awarded the marketing rights on a five-year term, allowing each franchise several seasons to bed in and create a brand identity in their chosen market.

Among the six that hold UK-wide marketing rights are the one-time Super Bowl champion New York Jets, who gained the rights at the program’s inception, having applied in the wake of the team’s 2021 International Series game in London.

The Jets have played in London twice since the inception of the NFL International Series, in 2015 and most recently in 2021. While not the franchise most synonymous with the UK, given the lengths the Jacksonville Jaguars have gone to associate themselves with London, the willingness of the Jets to embrace a foreign market indicates how important the UK has become to NFL franchises.

Speaking to Sportcal, Jets vice president of finance and analytics John MacCarter echoes this sentiment, saying that it’s “critical” for all NFL sides to be engaging with foreign markets.

“We as a league are investing in this increased schedule of games abroad and it would be a missed opportunity if you were to play a game abroad and not be programming around it, you know, enhancing that experience for the fans in that territory, bringing them into your tent. That of course comes with commercial opportunity down the road if we're [engaging with fans] well.”

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As the Global Markets Program requires teams to apply for it, rather than the league distributing it one-sidedly, the participating franchises have to be willing to take steps to widen their international appeal, rather than it being forced upon them – a facet that benefits both the constituent franchises and the league itself.

“It's been terrific. What I think the NFL did well with this program is unlock the access and the passion of the clubs,” states MacCarter. “We've got access to players and experiences that nobody else can provide."

This is exemplified by the Jet’s own tight-end C.J. Uzomah, MacCarter explains: “We sent him over to [the UK]. He met with the girls on the girls' flag league that we created [Jets UK Girls Flag League], he also did a suit fitting at the London location of [Jets sponsor] Charles Tyrwhitt, and then he took in a Champions League [soccer] match later that night and did some content from there.

"None of that I don't think the NFL itself could have done without our specific involvement.”

Despite having only played twice in the UK, new rules instituted by the NFL mean that each franchise will play abroad at least once every four years, which will only increase the opportunities for the Jets to lay roots in the UK.

MacCarter also acknowledges however that this increased commitment to overseas games will necessitate franchises doing much more to engage with fans in their assigned territories.

“If we were to just [play abroad] without any support, it would be a drop in the bucket. I strongly believe you need to surround it with [fan engagement] activities," he says.

Alongside this, the need to maintain an active social and commercial presence in the country is vital to ensure NFL teams maintain the attention of fans in a crowded UK sports market.

In the two years since garnering marketing rights to the UK, the Jets have taken leaps to improve its digital channels in the UK markedly. The franchise has a UK-specific website, social media accounts, and even UK-focused partnerships such as the aforementioned clothing retailer Charles Tyrwhitt.

“We felt strongly that it was important [our UK channels] shouldn't be a copy and paste from our existing channels, let's give it a spin that's relevant to UK fans,” explained MacCarter.

“We've succeeded there, we've had great growth on our social channels, on the website.”

The team has collaborated with English Premier League soccer clubs and Professional Darts Corporation darts players to craft partner content for social media catered toward the UK audience, with the stated aim of familiarizing more and more people with the Jets' identity.

It folds into what MacCarter identifies as the key driver of potential UK customers taking an interest in the league, which is a pre-existing interest in sports. Thankfully for the Jets, it is something that the UK does well in on both a fan and commercial basis, with the Jets having netted five commercial partners in the UK in the first two years of the program.

Possibly the biggest partner of the NFL in general in the UK is pay-TV giant Sky, which holds the rights to the NFL in the country through its Sky Sports set of channels.

The broadcaster previously aired live coverage of an NFL gameday from a Jets-hosted UK watch party. MacCarter stated that the broadcast was a major success for both Sky, the NFL, and the Jets themselves, and one that signifies the bond between Sky, which is owned by US telecoms giant Comcast, and the league.  

Sky has broadcast the NFL since 1995 and in 2020 launched a dedicated NFL channel to further its promotion of the sport. MacCarter hails the impact the broadcaster has had on the growth of the NFL in the UK and credits them with helping the Jets brand in particular touch more people.

“Sky has been a terrific partner, not just because we collaborated on that on that broadcast from the watch party, but we had worked out an arrangement with them whereby we produced lots of content … and they created a block for us on their NFL channel,” he explains.

“That's not just game content, that's long-form documentary-style programming behind the scenes. For us to put those shows over the airwaves, just getting our brand in front of as many people as possible, was a win.”

The biggest influencer of fan growth in the UK beyond activations and TV spots, is participating in a UK game itself.

“It’s a turbo boost,” says MacCarter, “When we speak to Premier League clubs, or potential sponsors, or just fans, they say ‘Oh, when are you playing? When are you playing here? [We’d] love to go see you.’ So, I think it just puts everything on turbo to be playing [in the UK]. Absolutely.”

With it likely the Jets will soon be playing again at either London’s Wembley Stadium or Tottenham Hotspur Stadium over the coming seasons, MacCarter outlined what teams such as the Jets must do to capitalize when the next “turbo boost” comes around.

“I think you'll see us doing bigger and better things,” he states.

“To be more specific, we want to be more present with events where many fans, be it in London or elsewhere in the UK, can experience the Jets the way we present ourselves."

This, in MacCarter’s eyes, means more activations, more Jets players and alumni visiting the UK, more watch parties, and more content. “We're going to continue to invest in digital but also increase our investment in person. And then once we do get confirmed for a game in London, we would go even bigger.”

Even though the program is still in its early stages, it’s one that the teams involved are always learning from to improve and reap further benefits. While the initial contracts last five years, the relationships that teams like the Jets forge with fans, stakeholders, and partners, over the five-year term may last far longer.

“I would say that we're doing the right things right now because we're learning. The program itself is only two years old. It's unlocked a lot of activity and I think that's very positive. They [the NFL] have committed to more games being played abroad. That's positive.”

When asked if he had any feedback for the league on how the Global Markets Program could be improved at this early juncture, MacCarter’s answer was simple. “I think we're making all the right moves as a league. No specific feedback for them at this stage because I think it's working. Absolutely.”