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The New Australian Sports Code War: Revamps, Rebrands, Reinvigorations

December 28, 2018

Originally published at Digital Sports Labs.

The past 20–25 years have seen a huge amount of upheaval in the world, with the pace of change seemingly so fast that most of us struggle to keep up with it all. The upheaval has affected every pillar of society and the pillar of sport hasn’t been immune.

While Australian sport has had its changes and revolutions over the past decades, you’d be hard pressed to say there has ever been such a concentration of change than from what we’ve seen in the past 7–8 years. Where the AFL, NRL, Cricket, V8s, F1s, Super Rugby, tennis and horse racing previously dominated (and generally still do), the landscape has become a lot more fractured and consumers have been flooded with choice in the entertainment sphere, and those choices are no longer defined by borders.

Take cricket for example: spurred on by the origin of Twenty20 in 2003, cricket fans now have the choice of watching International Twenty20, International One Day Internationals, International Test Matches, along with the domestic test, one-day and Twenty20 competitions. The quickest growth among those has been seen in the Big Bash League, launched in 2011.

Or take a look at the AFL and AFL clubs. Since 2010 there have been 2 new clubs introduced, changes to the pre-season competition, games in New Zealand and China, the launch of AFLW and now AFLX, and now we’re seeing clubs investing in esports, netball and more. That’s a breathtaking amount of change, and it isn’t even exhaustive! To add to all that the age of the rebrand is on us, with only 4 clubs represented by logos from before 2010.

Take a look at this non-exhaustive list of new or updated sporting properties and promotions from 2003 to the present, and you’ll see where the list gathers pace:

2003: First Twenty20 game in England (2005 first game in Australia)
2005: A-League launch
2008: W-League launch
2010: ABL (baseball) relaunch
2011: BBL launch
2011: Super Rugby (rebranded from Super 14)
2011: Gold Coast enters the AFL
2012: GWS enter the AFL
2013: AFL game in New Zealand
2014: AFL NAB Cup change to NAB Challenge
2014: NRL Auckland Nines launched (currently suspended due to workload from the recent Rugby League World Cup)
2015: Fast4 Tennis
2015: NBL rebrand
2016: Netball change from ANZ Championship to Suncorp Super Netball, with AFL and NRL clubs investing in a total of 3 teams (8 total)
2017: The Everest runs for the first time
2017: Brisbane Global Rugby Tens
2017: Port Adelaide and Gold Coast play in China
2017: AFLW launched
2017: AFL NAB Cup changes brand and structure to JLT Community Series
2017: AFL Clubs Adelaide and Essendon invest in esports team licenses
2018: AFLX launched
2018: E-League launched
2018: NRLW launching

The sheer amount of change is staggering.

It begs the question, what societal trends are driving the change, and will we see a trend of diminishing returns on the next few initiatives in coming years? Will customers grow tired of administrators trying to suck the last dollar out of their wallets, and grow cynical over the next ‘new big thing’?

Before our interviewed experts touch on the sustainability of this era, let’s have a look at some of the possible drivers for this new code war:

Are administrators pursuing a diversification strategy, with the ability to own relatively close verticals that help support the main pursuit? Or is the diversification a more concerted move away from pokies?

Are they seeking new audiences, such as those in Asia, New Zealand, or domestic audiences such as soccer or video gaming fans? Do they feel like the Aussie sports fan audience is now over-saturated and fully catered to?

Is it a matter of capturing the opportunity of low cost, digital broadcasting and social media advertising?

Is there an influx of smarter, more commercially savvy sports management professionals? Or is it the influence of wealthy individuals wanting to prove themselves in the cutthroat world of sports management?

Has there been a genuine increase in awareness of gender equality issues? Are administrators trying to tap into that?

Do the stalwart sports feel self-conscious, feeling that they’re losing their relevance with the oft-maligned Millennial Generation and those in Generation Z?

Nine of these competitions didn’t exist prior to 2010, while Super Rugby, Suncorp Super Netball and the NBL have all experienced significant change in that time.

When speaking to the media about the recent launch of the FFA’s E-League, Luke Bould, head of commercial, digital and marketing gave some insight, saying “We’re being entrepreneurial, we’re taking a risk. We have to be there and for us it’s a strategic advantage, there’s a million plus people playing this game and we don’t have enough fans of the A-League. We can try and influence them through this media,”.

Regarding AFLX, the AFL’s game development manager Andrew Dillon went on record to say “AFLX has been created to provide us with the options to play a form of the game in places where oval grounds are limited and to showcase our game internationally at a point in the future,” Dillon said.

I asked a number of prominent Australian sport business professionals on their thoughts on what’s driving the change, where they see it all going, and about where they’d hypothetically invest in (given the chance), given the choice of the new or revamped sporting properties launched in the last few years.

Sean Callanan — Sports Geek

Triggered by the Big Bash, we’re seeing a lot of new sports that are made for the fast-casual fan. They’re aiming for a shallower — but more entertaining — connection with new markets, be they kids and families or migrants or in the instance of AFLX, talking to sports fans in Sydney and Brisbane. In the case of the Rugby Sevens, they’re playing that in Hong Kong which opens up those international markets.

There’s also a play for greater TV rights as has been the case for decades, and this is the logical conclusion where sports are created to fit into the primetime slot. As the TV channels battle for content with Netflix and co, they’re able to use their existing national, live-sport-viewing brand equity to grab those audiences.

As the Big Bash are a little bit ahead of the game with this trend, they’re doing a great job. However with all of these products there is absolutely the potential downside of having too much product, and administrators also need to keep an eye out for when the shortened version starts to become more popular than the original product. It will be interesting to see how the newest cricket rights deal is influenced by the Big Bash, which provides a lot more advertising opportunities during prime time.

In the end it comes down to new products to serve new or underserved audiences which can help drive better TV rights deals.

Kieron Turner — Digital Engagement Manager, Adelaide FC

With content available at your fingertips in today’s modern society, consumers expect their appetites to be fed instantly. Otherwise they’ll move onto the next option just as quickly.

Fans are no longer forced to watch the AFL on a Friday night simply because there’s no other live sport on free-to-air television. They can consume just about any sport, from any country, at any time with the power of the internet and smartphones.

Factor in other entertainment options like Netflix and YouTube, and there are millions of things competing for a person’s time.

With lucrative broadcast rights deals under threat as more people cut the cord, it’s easy to see why the Big Bash League and AFLX have emerged as ‘instant entertainment’ options in a bid to attract new fans and expand audiences beyond Australia.

It also helps the push for corporate sponsorship dollars, in an industry that has evolved significantly to be far more results-driven in recent times.

Traditional marketing has also shifted, particularly when it comes to attracting millennials. Sports business professionals need to find new ways to communicate with their future fans, perhaps evidenced by the growing investment in esports by savvy sporting organisations.

The outlook is pretty simple: anyone standing still will be left behind. You need to be moving forward, at rapid pace, just to keep up.

Andrew Walton – CEO, InteractSport

There has been a change in attitudes within sporting entities to embrace diverse strategic thinking with an appetite driven from observing and investigating international trends.

There is the desire to be different, and to lead change within their own environment, to avoid the view that standing still is complacency.

Societally, the unwired generation is armed with a device of preference that demands and expects unhindered connectivity with ability to engage and share the experience.

Touch points of appeal to engage interest are extended to wherever imagination can flow eg: flashing bails, zooper dooper replays, apps, bringing the audience closer to the action, players getting better at direct engagement with fans post match and more.

As a result, a new natural order will start to take shape after the experimentation, research and development has settled.

Traditional fans will accept diverse and alternative options more readily as new talent emerges that specialises in new formats eg: Darcy Short in the BBL, Charlotte Caslick in Rugby 7’s.

The appeal with some of the new sporting properties gives an opening where anybody, athlete on field or back room, can come from anywhere as career options broaden.

Clubs and teams will become 12 month trading operations that will improve levels of business services, operations and professionalism in the digital space, creating a stability of cash flow to allow better resources and opportunities for strategic thinking and planning.

I’d invest heavily into the stable, loyal core of fans to bring them fully along. Rather than confuse and disenfranchise, entities need to work harder to engage and allow their devotion to influence and attract new fans. I’d also invest in a sport or team with international appeal where fans have alike tribal behaviours.

Nick Ristovic — Customer Engagement Manager, Melbourne Racing Club

When looking at modern sporting game format trends, there is a clear shift to producing shorter format events which engage patrons actively throughout the duration of the game.

The growth of 20/20 cricket, reinvigoration of the NBL competition and a recent launch into AFLX highlight the need for different sporting codes to create shorter events which are family friendly and ultimately provide more excitement for paying patrons.

Fans are more than ever looking for an option which provides great entertainment. We are competing in an ever more competitive landscape which has more options for potential fans than ever before.

Like test cricket, the industry I currently work in (Horse Racing) presents a similar challenge… how do we engage our patrons for a nine-hour format when live racing makes up 20–30 minutes of the days action?

The profile of racing avids has traditionally trended towards older audiences with younger patrons only attending during the Spring Racing Carnival. The challenge we are facing is to build out our race day format to provide entertainment in between racing to engage new non-racing avid audiences which are traditionally younger markets.

We are exploring better use of our big screen technology, crowd engagement through live competitions and shorter format twilight race meetings to bring new fans to our sport.

With research indicating that we are working longer hours than ever before, it’s this share of our ever reducing discretionary/social time that all sports are desperately trying to monopolise.