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Q&A with NFL CMO Mark Waller

By John Ingoldsby

In October, 2009, during the NFL’s Fall Meeting in Boston just two weeks before the NFL’s International Game in London, Boston-based writer John Ingoldsby sat down with Mark Waller, the National Football League’s new and first-ever Chief Marketing Officer, for an exclusive interview.

Q. Good morning, Mark. I know you spent time in the U.K., so how long have you been with the NFL?

A. This is the end of my fourth season, so this is the end of my fourth year. But I moved to the States in 1996, so I have been here for about 15 years.

Q. Now, my understanding is that you have a new position. You were formerly VP International, but now you have a different title?

A. I am now the first-ever CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) for the NFL, with the appointment effective about a month ago.

Q. Congratulations. So with the game less than two weeks away in London, what are your thoughts on it? Knowing that your international experience, it must be important to you.

A. We are very excited. It is a great mid-season calendar event for us, particularly as we increase the international popularity. Hopefully the weather will cooperate, which is always good.

Q. With this Sunday being the third game in London’s Wembley Stadium, are there any other future venues in the U.K. that are planned for games in the future?

A. Our focus at the moment is building frequency of games, so I think one of the things you will see us talk about in the next year or so is whether we have the opportunity to play more than one game a season in the U.K. So, we are already internally discussing how would we manage two games. If we were to do two games, would both of those games go to Wembley? Could we manage that with Wembley, given their other scheduling issues that they have or games that they have to schedule. So we are very committed to playing more in the U.K. To be honest, I think we have a very comfortable and happy position with Wembley. The games have gone well and Wembley has executed well. The fans have obviously turned out in great numbers, and so whilst we would like to look at other venues, we are very happy where we are. So I think whether we play two games in Wembley, or one in Wembley and one elsewhere, is still up for discussion.

Q. Yes, since I had read somewhere about a potential second game in Wales or Scotland.

A. Yes, I mean we have a lot of fans who come from all over the U.K. for our game, so the statistics of the last game showed that approximately 20 percent of the fans were from London, and the remainder came from outside of the greater London area. So, obviously, us playing in another venue would create an opportunity for potential fans who are not traveling to London to attend, or for fans not to travel as far, so that is in the thinking as well.

Q. Regarding the NFL’s overall international strategy going forward, I noticed the NFL highlight show which was launched in China very recently. Anything beyond the U.K. at this point?

A. I think we have two real focus areas. The first is the playing of regular season games, as we just discussed in the U.K., and obviously the Bills are playing in Canada. And we are working hard to get a game in Mexico, although we have not been able to bring that to fruition yet. And then the second one, which you referenced, is putting more tailored broadcast and digital product through our media platform. Thus the highlight show that you referenced in China.

Q. I understand.

A. Also, we are doing a highlight show now in the U.K. So we are doing much work on how we take our broadcast from the U.S. and truly customize it for local market, and highlights is obviously a great way into the sport so we put great emphasis on that. And in China you will see us complementing that as a game-type show, which will be, again, a breakthrough for us.

Q. Let me now ask you, Why London? Being familiar with the history, I remember the games in Mexico and Ireland preseason game, and the scheduled preseason game with the Patriots in China, which was then called off. How was the decision reached for London as the site for regular season games?

A. It is a confluence of three or four factors. The first factor is we have an incredible fan base there, which we have had in the U.K. since the late ‘1980s. So there is clearly a knowledgeable passionate fan base. We referenced already having a venue that is appropriate for what we want to accomplish, and how we stage our games is critical.

Q. You refer to Wembley Stadium, of course.

A. Yes, so Wembley is a key component. Also, having great media presences, the Sky network platforms that we built in the last few years are really destination NFL viewing, plus the interest that the BBC has recently bought, and now Channel 5, so we are able to take the live game and turn it into a season-long television opportunity. So the idea of playing a game in a country and not being able to service it with a full suite of media is a wasted opportunity for us. The U.K. gave us that. Finally, we had the passion and commitment of the fans to turn up. So not only do we have a passionate fan base in the U.K., as I mentioned, they travel great distances, they come for the weekend, and they make it a great weekend experience. What truly testifies to that is every team has commented that they were very surprised at how passionate and knowledgeable the fans were.

Q. Yes, I talked today with both Robert Kraft (Chairman and CEO of the New England Patriots) and his son Jonathan (President of the Patriots), who each said there is a group from the U.K. that comes over to a Patriots game every year, of which I was aware. They are both excited to be going to England.

A. Yes, quite excited.

Q. On that topic of being in England, are you from London proper?

A. No. I actually grew up in Kenya and then Hong Kong, and went to boarding school in Wales so I have a global background, for which I am very fortunate

Q. With that U.K. background, have you been to the previous two games in London?

A. I have, yes. Being there for football games is a very different sporting experience from anything that we are used to in the U.K., and that is part of the appeal for our game. It is truly a full-day experience, if you take in the tailgating, the time the game takes, and the pre-and post-game activities.

Q. Just like here in America, right?

A. Yes, but this is very different for over there, since I remember going to U.K. soccer games and your goal was to turn up at five minutes to three for a 3 o’clock start. Then, you leave as the game ended and be in your car to listen to the rest of the results coming in on the radio. And half-time was can I get to the bathroom or not? That was really the question.

Q. Certainly different than here?

A. Our American football experience is turning up three or four hours earlier, have a tailgate, shop, enjoy the presence of other fans, build a community around the game and obviously the game itself. It is a game that certainly has a whole load of strategy tactics, it stops; it starts; there are changes. So it is a very different game experience, and I believe that the appeal of it in the U.K. is that it is different so you are not competing with the soccer experience or the cricket experience. You’re providing a very different fan experience and I believe that is the appeal.

Q. Was there a moment in the past two years where you said London was a good choice? Where you saw something or just a moment in time where a light bulb went on?

A. When we kicked off the Miami Dolphins-New York Giants game. We saw Wembley Stadium and all its spectacle packed with fans and bands, all with the weather being truly awful. It was a very British night. And I sat there and thought, wow, if we can do this on a night like this, there’s definitely fan interest here.

Q. Were there flashbulbs like the beginning of a Super Bowl?

A. Yes, and actually the teams talked about it having a very definite excitement to it that you typically do not get in the middle of the season. Normally, your routine is very mapped out for you where players know where they are going, which hotels they are going to stay in, etc. I believe the Giants actually felt it pulled their team together in a way that had not happened up until then. And Dean Spanos from the Chargers will tell you the same, that their players felt it was a great bonding.

Q. What are your impressions of how Commissioner Roger Goodell has led the international charge into London, and how he operates such a gigantic business like the NFL?

A. I believe he has been unbelievably precise in his thinking, which is to stage the ultimate sporting experience for us -- our regular season game. That is the product that we need to deliver internationally, whether live or through our media platform, so his laser like focus to get the best games and get them viewed is the key to success. That is what fans tune to in the U.S., and that is what they will tune to internationally, we believe. That shift away from taking pre-season games internationally or American brand games as they will call the shift from the former European League, to a real investment in taking the regular season there. That is his leadership that has delivered that.

Q. It seems like Commissioner Goodell’s timing in becoming Commissioner coincided soon thereafter with the first regular season game in London.

A. Yes, he is very committed to ensuring that we play in the sort of cities that represent the stature of our game. Clearly, if you take London or Toronto or Mexico City when we play there, we have always picked those cities that are truly iconic cities, and that is part of what our game represents. It stands for stature, and it stands for a kind of position that needs to be reflected in the venues and the cities that we play in.

Q. Excellent, Mark, and thank you!

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