The long-awaited return of AFL and what it means for sport marketers

On March 18th the long anticipated AFL season returned. Inevitably, restarting these types of events could boost sport marketing performance.

Last year we discussed the impact the pandemic has had on the sporting industry. Now that the return of sporting events is well underway, there are lingering questions of how and what. How will new events look in the post COVID-19 environment and what can we expect from them?

So far, we’ve had digital spectators, as well as masked audiences. But what happens now, when stadiums started filling up with more and more people? What is AFL doing to help prevention and how is the AFL marketing events?

The challenges of getting back to in-person events impact sport aficionados as well as sport marketers. The return of AFL brings up questions of safety, regulations and the changing landscape of events marketing.

As it would be expected, people may be worried about safety regulations when going to events of AFL scope. Dr Meg Elkins, senior lecturer at RMIT University, touches upon the topics of insecurity that comes into play when our return outdoors is concerned.

Elkins says “The difficulty associated with navigating public transport and booking-in for pre and post games catch up may reduce our willingness to engage with the full AFL experience.”

 

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The AFL website has posted a comprehensive list of best practices for anyone interested in attending events in person. They advise people to stay at home if unwell, to maintain hygiene by washing hands regularly, to practice social distancing, as well as not to share drinks or food, among other important safety measures. On top of that, AFL wants to ensure everyone that all the clubs’ players and coaches have been tested and cleared for COVID-19.

It is also important to note that despite decline in ad spend across sectors in 2020, this year’s events will be sponsored by 9 major sponsors, including Toyota, Telstra, Coles and Virgin Australia. This is also the case for individual clubs. iiNet, for example, has announced its continued sponsorship of Hawthorn Football Club.

Rob Holmes, general manager of marketing at iiNet says, “To be extending our partnership with the Hawks into a ninth year is an exciting milestone for the iiNet brand. We’re looking forward to bringing the players and their fans closer together in the coming season.”

 

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Elkins draws attention to the fact that people will take some convincing to leave the comfort of their home. This is where marketing comes into play.

As data from Nielsen shows, last year in Australia has seen a greater social media engagement for the sporting industry. Various sports videos across different platforms accumulated over 12 million views in a week without any live sporting content. This can be attributed to an acceleration of creative digital media efforts, such as Football Australia opting to stream a replay of the Socceroos vs. Uruguay in the 2006 World Cup Qualifier on Facebook. In the last week of March 2020 the AFL collected 2.1 million interactions on their social media, with more than 70 percent of that on Instagram.

Con Stavros, associate professor at RMIT University, considers the buzz around men’s AFL and considers other possible strategies to gather fans back into the live experience: “In that sense the marketing job of the AFL is essentially to ensure continuity of supply; that is making sure they have a fixture and flexibility that can see the game get through this season without major interruption and also ensuring that the product is tweaked appropriately to maintain the balance of gameplay that attracts fans.

“While AFL remains first and foremost a team orientated game built around lengthy traditions to clubs, especially in traditional markets, we are starting to see more of an ‘Americanisation’ of the promotion where star players are billed as the drawcard, rather than just the competing teams. This not only helps attract new audiences but also tries to encourage AFL fans to engage with as many games as possible over the weekend, connecting them beyond just the team they follow.”

 

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AFL’s new Amazon Prime documentary, ‘Making their Mark’ – released this month – is a good example of building the profiles of individual players. It presents a content marketing move with perfect timing – right as the season opens. Fans can reminisce about 2020’s turbulent season as this year’s games unravel, as well as get to know some fan favourites. And the hype the series has created on social media is already palpable.

“The other positive for the AFL, and one they should maintain as much as possible, is the rhythm and flow of the weekly routine to their sport. The concept of sport viewing is a ritualistic process, with a clear ebb and flow that resounds in anticipation, consumption and reflection. The AFL has the perfect weekend structure in place and the interruptions of 2020 greatly demonstrated how interrupting this pattern can throw fans out of balance, leading to disengagement,” adds Stavros.

 

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And when it comes to social media as a place for sport to engage with audience, Stavros believes that COVID-19 has accelerated the transformation of how sport is consumed, with sports marketers and the industry beginning to utilise technology platforms, from social media to streaming, to not only enable spectator experience but also connect fans to each other.

“New screens and new technology have brought about fan and athlete connections that were once not possible and the remaining frontier remains truly engaging consumers to ensure that fandom can be monetised and sustained,” says Stavros.

“One aspect of social media that has become far more prominent in recent years is the direct use of it by athletes to build their profile and brand. While teams and sports seek to engage on social media, the real standout in this regard have been the individual athletes who have found a direct pathway to fans that allows them to significantly increase their already substantial appeal.”

 

Dr Meg Elkins is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University and the Behavioural Business Lab.

Con Stavros is the associate professor at RMIT University and the editor of the international journal ‘Sport, Business & Management’.

Marija Mrvosevic
BY Marija Mrvosevic ON 22 March 2021
Marija Mrvosevic is the editorial intern at Marketing Mag.