Before the NRL and AFL expansion, before the Big Bash, before the proliferation of women’s sports, marketers may not have thought it but, by comparison to 2019, they had it easy. Now, in Melbourne alone, there are 26 teams from Australia’s largest professional leagues, all vying for a share of Melburnian’s eyeballs and wallets. And it’s not much better in Sydney with 22 teams competing across the seven major leagues: AFL, the Big Bash, Super Netball, the NBL, Super Rugby and of course the NRL. This is before we even consider tennis, golf and Formula 1.
So how do you stand out from the crowd, and how do you develop that emotional connection to your sports property to ensure the fans come back next week, the week after and the week after that, even if you’re losing?
You understand your customer.
For the last decade ‘customer centricity’ has been the buzz word bandying its way around corporates. They have shifted their attention away from purely revenue generating activities and a tight focus on the bottom line to acknowledging the value of customer loyalty.
So, what are sports doing in this space? How are they combatting their own churn? What are they doing to reach out to the broader supporter base to bring them back into the fold? Do they even know who they are? This latter question, is one of the key challenges: targeting that existing lukewarm audience. These are the individuals who don’t follow the team closely but may have done in the past, take a passing interest in the team because they play the sport, or have friends who follow the team and ultimately could themselves, given the right incentive.
One recent example of this is from the NRL’s Parramatta Eels; in October 2018 True North’s insights tool, BenchMark, uncovered that amongst those familiar with the Eels there was a high proportion of ‘rarely support’ in its fan profile. The proportion was larger than for any other NRL team and second largest amongst the 106 teams evaluated by BenchMark. Essentially the Eels were seeing fans moving down the fandom scale. Fans spoke of having supported the Eels for their entire life, but recent form, changes in circumstances, management issues or moving away from the Parramatta region had seen their engagement with the Eels decline.
Looking more closely at the demographic profile of the Eels, the club, has a comparatively large ethnically diverse fan base, reflective of its geographical location, but amongst the waning supporter base, one group was clearly discernible: there was a proportion of older fans who had grown up in and around Parramatta in the 70s and 80s, who remembered the hay days, when the Eels won four premiership crowns between 1981-86 and whose players were celebrated as all-time greats in the annals of NRL history. But now, nearly 40 years on, the trophy hardware having all but lost its luster, and holding the unfortunate record for the longest premiership drought, these same fans were drifting away.
Premierships in 82 and 83 - Neil Cadigan
We spoke to one such Eels fan in March 2019, John (name has been changed), who hadn’t been to an Eels match in years, he no longer checked the score every weekend, and was vague around where the Eels currently placed on the NRL ladder. John was born in the heart of Parramatta in 1965 but now lives on the North Shore with his wife and two university aged children. He still works in the Parramatta region running a building supplies business and many of his workforce are league fans. He was 16 when the Eels won their first premiership crown, and for his next five impressionable years the Eels made a further four finals. This early success was one of the contributing factors, alongside the more significant bonding experience of going to games with his father or watching them on TV (his father never missed a match), that made John a life-long Eels fan but this support was on the verge of extinction, and his love for Rugby union was winning his own hearts and minds battle.
We asked John what would make him return; now that the Eels had their new Bankwest stadium was he interested in checking it out? He had already been to the stadium for a Waratahs match, would he go again for the Eels? He reminisced about his childhood, the habit of watching games with his father, who passed away a couple of years ago, the memories he had of all the former greats – of which he could name many, but his knowledge of the current team was virtually nonexistent. It was the evocative memories from his childhood that held the key to his return and it was this trigger that needed to be reignited in order for him to retrace his steps to the former Cumberland Oval, now Bankwest stadium.
Inside view of Bankwest stadium on opening day
A few weeks ago we spoke to John again, he had decided to get tickets to watch the Eels play for the first time in over a decade, prompted by the new stadium, a better run of form and a desire for a trip down memory lane. He had diarised all their home matches, determined to see them play this season, and now aware that they were developing a strong home record at what was quickly becoming known as the fortress. He went alone, for this was about returning to his roots, a chance to reflect on his childhood, in an otherwise busy life. For John, the experience didn’t disappoint. He sat next to a female fan who asked whether he was an Eels or Knights fan given that he displayed no outward sign of the blue and gold. (A quick side note – the Eels have the highest proportion of supporters/fans from any team evaluated who have purchased kit.) John proudly pointed to a spot just outside the stadium “I grew up just over there”. He noted his own sense of pride in returning to see the Eels play once again, and in his words:
“it reignited the passion, and that sense of belonging is important, to feel part of the team, when a whole crowd is united. Plus, there was a chance, unlike when I watch the Waratahs, that your team might actually win!”
BenchMark data had already identified John and his cohort as being a key group to win back. Back in April when the Eels played their first game at Bankwest, past greats were invited to take centre stage, the grandstands too, paying homage to the Eels’ legends of the game. It is these activities, that focus on reconnecting, both with the club and past friends, that will help bring others, like John, back into the fold. Ensuring that merchandise reflects this will also enhance the connection, this group is much more likely to wear a retro 80s shirt, buy a scarf or cap, than invest in a present-day shirt adorned with sponsors logos.
The temptation for clubs may be to focus purely on new, younger fans, and this is certainly an important market to target, but reconnecting older audiences, where an established bond already exists, is equally important for clubs that want to continue to grow, build connections and welcome one and all. For John, who makes decisions about corporate entertainment and where his office away day events are held, enticing him back with memories of the past, providing an excellent fan experience in the present, and then delivering on the Eels’ promise of a better future (as outlined in their recently released strategic plan), will determine whether his recent trip down memory lane is a once off or a regular occurrence. But for now, John is certainly open to a return trip, continuing on his journey of rediscovery and even bringing his work crew along with him.
Parramatta Eels are fortunate to have a new stadium, married with a return to form, that they are able to leverage. The Eels average home attendance in 2018 was 11,175, in the games played at the new stadium in 2019 it is over 21,000 during the regular season. The Eels shouldn’t stop there, in a stadium that can pack another 9000 fans in, there is still scope to extend its reach. Improving the reputation of the NRL overall will assist with this, and a united consistent approach is required, but that’s a topic for another day!
BenchMark uncovered many more insights for the Eels, from the value of their large female supporter base to the more quirky but important insight around the unique place the Eels’ colours, the blue and gold, play in the fan’s psyche. For all clubs wanting to build loyalty and renew old connections it is about understanding what makes your supporter base tick and how you can deepen the emotional bond. Not every club has the benefit of a new stadium to leverage, but every club has strengths to leverage and its own unique story to tell.
Georgie Maynard is founder and director of True North Research. True North provides consultancy and strategic advice to rights holders and sponsors, utilising its proprietary insights tool, BenchMark: evaluating our emotional connection to sports and sponsors. To find out more: www.truenorthresearch.com.au
Stop Press - an update from John: he bought a ticket to the Eels first finals match vs the Broncos at the weekend, which didn't disappoint (58 to 0), and he said 'I'm not going home, this is too good!'. The flame has well and truly been reignited!