International Business Strategies

How Popular are American Sports in the UK?

Can e-commerce sales reveal which NFL, NBA and MLB sports teams are most respected in the UK? An in-depth look, from a self-proclaimed sports junkie.

Eric Watson's avatar
Eric Watson

November 11, 2015


MotionPoint’s Countdown to Black Friday has begun! We'll soon publish an exclusive report on how localised Spanish-language websites boost sales for U.S. retailers during the Thanksgiving shopping week. To celebrate, we’re examining unique aspects of consumer behavior in other parts of the world. Today, we travel to the United Kingdom!

In recent years, American sports associations have invested heavily in growing fans in the UK—and folks across the pond are responding. In 2007, the National Football League played its first exhibition game at Wembley Stadium; the first 40,000 tickets sold in 90 minutes. This year, the league played three games at Wembley, all of which were sellouts.

Florida-based NFL team Jacksonville Jaguars have arguably become London’s honorary “home” team, with an agreement to play one game a year in London through 2020.

Thanks to the success of the NFL’s efforts, a growing number of Major League Baseball teams are interested in playing in the UK, too.

Given their immense resources, how successful have the NFL, MLB and NBA been in creating international fans?

The National Basketball Association has actively promoted the game overseas since the 1980s, with games across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Leagues in these regions have grown steadily; the makeup of current NBA rosters reflects the quality of players-including numerous NBA champions-these leagues have created. For instance, UK player Luol Deng recently joined the Miami Heat (from the Cleveland Cavaliers) with great acclaim.

I'm a huge NBA fan. I love playing pickup games with co-workers after work. I also have a passion for statistics and international business. I began to wonder: Given their immense resources, how successful have the NFL, MLB and NBA been in creating international fans?

Curious, I set out to see if UK consumers were supporting American sports teams with their purchases.

I reviewed data from a well-known sports apparel website that MotionPoint localises and operates for UK consumers. This site, like many others we localize for the UK, is owned by a savvy American brand expanding into European markets. (It's a smart play-localising e-commerce sites with British English generates more traffic, engagement and revenue among UK consumers that most companies expect.)

I examined the past five years of sales data from this e-retailer, focusing on how much team-branded apparel was sold-such as snapback caps, hoodies, shirts, tees and jerseys. Some of the results surprised me.

A Home Run Among Brits

Despite all the attention the NFL and NBA have given the UK market throughout the years, their sports don't lead the pack in apparel sales. That honour goes to the MLB.

The Yankees’ global reach is certainly comparable to soccer’s Real Madrid or Manchester United.

Official MLB gear is overwhelmingly purchased more often than the other two leagues. Nearly 80%! This was a shock, particularly given the MLB's slower moves in bringing its game to the UK. Once I examined the breakdown of the MLB's top teams, however, the answer became clear.

Darned Yankees!

New York Yankees gear accounted for a whopping 38% of all MLB gear sold since 2010.

Although fans of other teams may disagree—and I’m one of them; Go Cubs!—the Yankees are probably the strongest example of a venerated “institution” the sport has. The team’s global reach is certainly comparable to soccer’s Real Madrid or Manchester United.

The power of the Yankees brand is the key contributor to why MLB apparel outsells NBA and NFL gear. In fact, UK sales generated from Yankees apparel alone represent more than all NFL and NBA sales combined.

While the Yankees represented far and away the largest share of MLB sales, other teams had respectable showings. The Los Angeles Dodgers owned a 14% share of total MLB gear sold. The Atlanta Braves followed, with 10%.

There are winners in every game, and sadly, there are losers. When I examined MLB franchises with the lowest gear sales, one poor team stood out: the Tampa Bay Rays. The Colorado Rockies and the Seattle Mariners fared better, but just barely.

Why did these teams perform so poorly? With an inaugural season of 1998, the Rays are a relatively new team. Further, aside from a surprising World Series run in 2008 and first-round playoff exit in 2011, the team hasn't seen a breakout success that would generate buzz across the pond.

To confirm this, I examined Rays apparel sales by date of purchase. As expected, there was a 4x increase in September 2011, before the team's division series matchup against the Texas Rangers. (2008 sales data wasn't available.) For younger teams, good seasons translate into good apparel sales.

Here’s the full breakdown of the MLB teams, and their share of apparel sold:

Winning on the Gridiron

On to American football. While the Jacksonville Jaguars may be considered London's honorary "home team," the team isn't leading the pack in UK-based apparel sales. The most popular NFL teams have conquered the UK's Top 5 sales list.

The Oakland Raiders take the top position with approximately 18% of the NFL gear sold, followed closely by the New York Giants (approximately 17%). These two are far and away the leaders. The third most-popular team is the Dallas Cowboys; it claims about 7% of the NFL goods sold.

Which teams comes in at the bottom? The Tennessee Titans come in last place, followed closely by the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cleveland Browns. Similar to the MLB trends, it appears that the most successful teams-or teams with the longest legacies-are the most popular. Teams with spottier seasons sink to the bottom.

(Sadly, despite back-to-back successful seasons, my beloved Arizona Cardinals also appear to be still relatively unknown in the UK. The team generated only a 1.23% share of gear sold. I expect this will change when we win the Super Bowl this year!)

The full breakdown of the NFL teams and their share of NFL apparel sold:

A Closer Look at the Jaguars

Did the Jacksonville Jaguars-the NFL team that has played in London most consistently-generate any interesting sales trends in the UK? The team announced in August 2012 that it would play an annual home game in London from 2013 to 2016. Since then, the Jaguars have played three games in the UK: on Oct. 27, 2013 (a loss), Nov. 9, 2014 (another loss), and Oct. 25, 2015 (a win).

The team's 2012 announcement, and subsequent performance, impacted apparel sales. Sales grew steadily from August 2012 until peaking in October 2013, coinciding with the Jaguars' first home game in London.

Since the normal scheduling of regular-season Jaguars games in the UK, a predictable sales cycle has emerged. Jaguars-related sales increase in the month just prior to the team's home game in London, and continue until December.

As of this writing, it's two months too early to judge whether the Jaguars' most recent victory will add growth to this pattern. However, it is clear that UK shoppers do purchase the team's gear with some regularity.

Shootin’ Hoops in the UK

It shouldn't come as a surprise that top-selling NBA apparel is associated with storied, championship-winning teams-specifically the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. These teams represent three of the five top sellers.

Interestingly, the Top 5's remaining two teams-the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets-don't share such legacies. What's the secret to these teams' sales success?

It might’ve been cold outside during the holidays, but British shoppers stayed warm with the Heat.

I suspect UK residents may have some true loyalty to the Hawks. During the 2012-2013 NBA season, Hawks product sales skyrocketed up 318%, and have grown at an average of 19% annually since.

The much-publicised move of the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012 seemed to capture UK customers' attentions. Sales of Brooklyn Nets gear increased 716% during the season. Growth has decreased, but loyal purchases are still coming.

I was interested in seeing if a NBA team with a UK-born player on the roster might influence sales from supportive UK consumers. Sure enough, Luol Deng's move to the Miami Heat in July 2014 had a measurable impact on Miami Heat apparel sales.

These products saw a 107% jump the month following Deng's signing with the Miami Heat, and an unprecedented 201% jump that December. It might've been cold outside during the holidays, but British shoppers stayed warm with the Heat.

Wrapping Up

After examining five years of sports-related sales data, I came to some interesting conclusions. Generally speaking, UK shoppers purchase sports apparel for American teams based largely on:

  1. The team’s legacy and historical successes
  2. Any recent success or fanfare that might make the team stand out to a UK shopper

This data reveals other lessons for American companies looking to cross the Atlantic, online.

While British fans of American sports buy branded gear based on how well they know a team’s history and culture, new British customers must feel a similar connection to your brand.

The Jacksonville Jaguars didn't decide to play in London on a whim. The team made a long-term commitment to British fans, and invested in marketing and outreach to grow the local fan base. As a result, the team is selling out stadiums and generating regular apparel sales from loyal UK fans.

Similarly, to succeed, expanding American companies should do more than launch localised sites for the UK market. Engaging with these new customers with cultural respect is also key. This too-often overlooked strategy won't just generate great results in the UK; it'll resonate with customers around the world.

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