Growth agenda of the AFL: Learning from the past

I’ve only been in the USA for just under 2 weeks. It’s the first time I’ve resided outside of Australia and I’m still settling into my new home in Denver. Back home in Australia, there is only one sport that matters; The Australian Football League (AFL). Think of it as Australia’s NFL. It’s the 800lb gorilla, or should I say kangaroo, down there and I am a mad Essendon Bombers fan. To be honest, I didn’t have a choice! Like many kids growing up back home, my family told me that I’d be supporting the mighty Bombers or I could find a new family!

However, for how long can we rely on the legacy and passing down through the generations to attract new fans to sports? That’s a big question and one that I am keen to explore a little further.

But first, some context…

Prior to moving halfway across the world, I worked on the marketing team at the AFL and spent time at the St Kilda Football Club for over 10 years in total. Therefore, I wanted to share some learnings on my past experiences from the Australian Football League as I think there may be some lessons for the US market.

As I mentioned, the AFL is Australia’s largest and most popular sport. It dominates TV ratings, memberships, and attendances and has been on an upward curve for the past few years. But it hasn’t always been that way…

Back in 2011, the league was just coming off record attendances, powerful TV ratings, and the game was generally in good shape. However, something changed. From 2012-2014 the league started making decisions that would take their eye away from their biggest stakeholder; the fans.

Ticket prices went up, marquee games were being prioritized for Sunday night time slots (traditionally a hard slot for families and kids), food and beverage prices increased, and crowds were down by over 10% in Melbourne alone (over 600,000 people). Revenue was down and questions were being asked.

Now hindsight is 20/20, but the answer to the problem really was simple. We took our eyes off the AFL’s primary audience and, in turn, we paid for it. Big time.

Turning things around

Following 2014, the ‘fan agenda’ was born and a key objective was agreed upon; re-engage our key fans, whether it be watching, attending, or playing the game. The strategy was business-wide and spear-headed by the ‘you make the game’ campaign.

It was industry-wide:

• New pricing strategies (kids in free on Sunday’s, #SundayFunday)

• A greater emphasis on the entire match day entertainment proposition

• Working with venues to reduce pricing for ‘footy favorites’ (meat pie, anybody?)

• Embracing social & digital media as a means of communication and story-telling

• Bringing nostalgia back like ‘kick to kick’ on the ground once the main game was played.

At the end of 2017, the turnaround was complete. Crowds and memberships had never been higher and sentiment amongst existing fans was generally positive.

Taking the game into the future

One key challenge still existed; how do we identify and communicate with potential new fans and get them to try the game? How do we place enough bandwidth to both identify potential new audiences whilst not taking our eyes off the existing fans? The answer; data. We needed to understand them.

An interesting piece of research showed the state of the Australian psyche to be somewhat negative. Housing prices were unaffordable, the cost of living was rising, and generally, the feeling from Mum and Dad was that they weren’t leaving the country in a better place than they found it.

The silver lining was despite all of the challenges that existed in their day-to-day lives, the AFL was the one place where they could go and all their troubles would disappear for two hours. Thanks to the game they loved, they could believe in a world where anything was possible. This all sounds great for the existing fan, but how do you shape this idea and make it appeal to new fans?

The research suggested that potential new fans wanted more to care about than just the spectacular highlights of the game; they wanted to know the stories behind it. If they were going to devote any of their already limited time to our game, they needed something bigger to believe in. We had to give them a reason to care and be more proactive in serving them compelling content in an environment that they were familiar with.

Which is where the use of data is so important, along with the right segmentation modeling and story-telling. We could no longer rely on a ‘build it and they will come’ approach. We had to go to them.

To bring the above vision of ‘a world where anything is possible’ and adapting that to all target audiences, traditional fans, considerers, families & kids, we positioned the AFL brand as a ‘culture’ brand as opposed to a ‘category’ brand. We wanted to position ourselves as bigger than just the sport. People, rightly or wrongly, looked to the AFL on all sorts of social issues, from gay marriage to women’s sport, as well as racial vilification policies. With this in mind, the ‘don’t believe in never’ campaign was born which told multiple unique stories targeted at each of our target audiences.

We told the story of:

• The Richmond Football club’s fairytale win in 2017 (think Chicago Cubs) – targeting traditional fans

• Aliir Aliir, a Sudanese-born player who migrated via a Kenyan refugee camp to star for the Sydney Swans (consider audience)

• Dema, a young Muslim girl who was forbidden to play AFL by her Dad, only to do it anyway and meet new friends and build her confidence. Her Dad is now her #1 supporter and an AFL fanatic!

• Mason Cox, the American who took the league by storm after playing at Oklahoma State as a walk-on in basketball.

The digitally-led campaign allowed us to target multiple pieces of content to different audiences and continue telling that story depending on which content was engaged with.

Ticket sales from Facebook & Instagram, in particular, boomed with a return on ad spend (ROAS) as high as 17:1. Engagement and VTR across YouTube were phenomenal and the feedback from non-traditional AFL fans has been amazing. Further, the campaign allowed the use of story-telling to set the agenda for the season as well as owning key moments in time (i.e. Release a story on ANZAC Day (comparable to Memorial Day) or Australia Day or to support a particular theme.

The key to this was basing the campaign on truths unique to our game. Not once does it ever feel like ‘advertising’. 2018 saw the AFL set new benchmarks again for attendance and membership and is continuing to perform strongly in 2019. Now the ‘always on’ approach to story-telling is not yet perfected, nor is the use of data yet 100% cohesive to drive the strategy, however, the journey has begun and knowing that the status quo needs to be challenged is often the most difficult part when it comes to driving growth.

At the end of 2017 the AFL had 2 choices; continue doing things the way they were, or be brave enough to reset with a view to grow beyond what was previously possible because if you stand still, you’re essentially going backward.

So, what lessons can US Sports take from this?

The above might be nothing more than a story from half-a-world away, and if that’s the case, I hope you enjoyed it! However, a number of similarities in the above AFL example ring true for US sports marketers:

• Put the fan at the heart of your decision-making process

• Clearly define your objectives

• Be bold! Don’t be afraid to shift the status quo and challenge the way things have always been done

• Know your target audiences (like, really know them)

• Use data and analysis to understand what works

• Fail quickly. Trial, error, repeat.

The key to any game is, and has always been, the fans and with a little luck, the next generation will not only be targeted brilliant story-telling about why they should care about your game in channels where they consume, but they’ll also have their families telling them who to follow.

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