The Chicago Bears are one of the most storied and historically important franchises in the NFL. The team in recent years has been using this to its advantage through the acquisition of marketing rights in one of the league’s largest international markets, the UK. 
Tanya Dreesen, SVP of Strategy & Global Affairs for the Bears, spoke to Insider Sport on the importance of growing the game in the UK, the initiatives that are helping to grow younger female participation, as well as the possibilities of extending this further with first overall draft pick Caleb Williams

Insider Sport: Firstly Tanya, what made Manchester a suitable city as part of the Bears’ UK expansion? 

Tanya Dreesen: Teaching girls about Flag Football is not only giving them an extra sport to consider, but it also looks to help them with confidence, body positivity and creates an option for a sport that they can now play in the Olympics.  

As the Chicago Bears develop our global footprint, we are looking at ways to make American football equitable and accessible. We saw a gap in the city of Manchester with access to flag football, particularly for girls.  

Knowing how passionate the people of Manchester are about sports – eg. Manchester United is the 3rd most supported soccer club in the world based on social media followers, with 207 million followers and last November, earned the prestigious honour of being named one of the top 5 cities in the world for sport. 

It’s a city that shares our core values around diversity and inclusion, we identified Manchester as a great growth option for Girls’ Flag Football, providing access where we can. 

IS: Can you let us in to how successful the London flag league was in being able to engage with young women to take part in the sport? 

TD: We see success both in the data as well as the emotional response to the sport.  Since starting in 2023, we have now expanded to 24 teams. Individually we have empowered hundreds of girls and given them access to the great game of football, helping to build their confidence and self-esteem while supporting their physical, emotional and social development needs. 

And one of the most important qualities… teamwork – cheering each other on and supporting one another.

credit: Chicago Bears

IS: Since gaining marketing rights for the UK in 2022, are there any other initiatives the Bears have been a part of and is there more to come in the future? 

TD: In addition to enhancing the fan experience and creating commercial opportunities, youth football is a big initiative the Chicago Bears have in the UK.  We see our mini monsters’ clinics as the pipeline for youth learning about the sport.  Those clinics will be in the UK this summer and fall, ahead of the game in London. This will be the 3rd UK tour.  

We are also adding flag football coaches’ clinics to this next tour. We feel that by empowering coaches with the tools and confidence to teach the game we will multiply our impact. This all leads to building sustainable and scalable models so that the Chicago Bears footprint is permanent.  

We also love to see how the sport is gaining participation from our current and alumni players as they continue to raise their hands to attend, motivate and participate in the youth sport events across the pond and around the globe. 

IS: What opportunities are there for the Bears in being able to market a potentially young superstar in Caleb Williams to markets such as the UK to grow its younger fanbase?

TD: Our partners are valuable to our business model. They allow us to scale and grow youth sport programs.  

When we draft a player like Caleb Williams, those efforts with our partners, global markets and younger fanbase are amplified and endless because Caleb is such a star. The Chicago Bears don’t just select players, we select people. Caleb is one of those special players of great integrity and we know that will resonate with fans. 

We saw it on draft day as his merchandise on Fanatics, including jerseys and other apparel, set the record for draft night sales value in any sport. The Chicago Bears look forward to marketing this young talent and continuing to grow the game in the UK with more interaction between the sport and the young fanbase as well as unique experiences for young fans ahead of our game in London and long after. 

With Caleb now on the Chicago Bears’, our girls’ flag football leagues will continue to grow, mini-monsters’ clinics will be doubled, current players will make more appearances from their own personal excitement and our young fans will be integrated into our game in London.     

credit: Shutterstock

IS: From your knowledge, how different is the NFL UK fan base from 10 years ago? Can you point out some of the major factors that have contributed to this shift? 

TD: Of the 28 NFL London games since 2007, 25 of them have had an attendance of at least 83,000.

Less than 29,000 people participated in American Football in England in 2016. That means three times as many people attend a single NFL London game than apparently actually play the sport. 

Tottenham games in 2019 were 12 times oversubscribed and sold out in 45 minutes. According to Ampere Analysis’ latest Sports Consumer survey, 10% of UK sports fans say they enjoy the NFL. This is a similar level of popularity to the NBA, while the MLB attracts just 5% of the sample. 

Unlike the NBA, however, the NFL has been less able to engage younger sports fans: Over half of the UK’s NBA fans in the survey are between 18 and 34 years old, while this figure is just 36% for the NFL. Local games may therefore be an opportunity to tap into a younger fanbase.

The NFL’s willingness to adapt to a younger audience, through partnerships with online social media platform TikTok and online gaming platform Roblox is one which has seen the league attract a younger audience in the UK. 

IS: Lastly Tanya, and thank you for your time, have you identified any boundaries for UK citizens in being able to get involved in football and are there any possible solutions for participation? 

TD: Access is the largest boundary we have found for UK citizens to be and stay involved in American football. The NFL has worked hard and made a tremendous amount of progress overcoming access barriers.  

We are also hoping to continue to break down those barriers by providing an introduction to the sport of American Football through Mini Monsters, creating opportunities for all to play flag football through the flag football leagues and eliminating educational barriers by providing additional knowledge of the sport through coaches’ clinics.  

Hopefully with this influence, intentional work and education, existing barriers will start to be removed. 

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