The Women’s Australian Football League: An Inaugural Success

The AFLW Proves Being Bold, Taking Risks and Working with Collaborative Partners is a Recipe for Commercial Success:


Andrew Bell
, Client Service & Sales

You wouldn’t be judged too harshly if you had missed the significant buzz south of the Equator, generated by the recent success of the inaugural season of the Australian Football League’s women’s competition. You could also be forgiven for asking the bigger question…. who exactly are the AFL?

The sport of Australian Rules Football, although a way-of-life Down Under, hasn’t captured the attention of worldwide audiences in the same manner as successful sporting exports such as the NFL or Basketball. This may be due to funding, league aspirations or the crunching nature of the play itself, but that consideration is for another article.

The Australian Football League (AFL) oversees all aspects of ”Aussie Rules Football” in Australia, serving as both the National Sport Organization as well as the administrators of the league itself. In 2017, almost 120 years after its inception, the powers-that-be finally decided that the time was right for a women’s competition. The AFLW was born.

This case-study appears at a fortunate time, as the sports marketing industry ponders the relationship between traditional media and women’s sport, and considers efforts to change the focus for 2017 and beyond.

With a string of world-class performances and marquee moments from Team Canada at Rio 2016, the lion’s share of Olympic attention in Canada, deservedly, switched to our women. However, Rio notwithstanding, the coverage of women’s sport in the media remains woefully inadequate and has long been blamed for the worrying trend of decreasing participation rates amongst young women.

A 2016 CAAWS report generated some stark figures surrounding media coverage of events, noting that women received only 4% of the coverage on Canada’s national sports networks over a one year period. This share of coverage seems to be in contrast to the attitudes of consumers across Canada whom, anecdotally at least, are attracted to women’s events. Karin Lofstrom, Executive Director at CAAWS notes, “When people see the (women’s) World Cup soccer in person or on TV, or see the women’s hockey team or Olympic figure skating, there’s surges in registration. It just drives interest.”

We’ve done the research and know that Canadians want to watch more women’s sport.

In partnership with IMI International and our sister company TORQUE Strategies, we’ve studied what Canadians want and when it comes to women’s sport:

  • 40% of Canadians like watching women’s sport (IMI,2016)
  • 13 million Canadians (53%) said there should be more women’s sports on TV or online (IMI, 2016)
  • 63% of Canadians agree brands should do more to support Women’s sport in Canada (IMI, 2016)

The AFLW and the Commercialization of Women’s Sport Abroad

In 2010, a joint effort report, centered on Australian media coverage of sport, was led by the University of New South Wales in conjunction with the Australian Sports Commission. Towards a Level Playing Field: Sport and Gender in Australian Media” found that women’s sport accounted for just 9% of Australian television news media. In an interview with Australia’s ABC news, Dr. Kate Greenwood, a co-author of the report, commented on the study, conceding that “It was a finding that I don’t think necessarily surprised everyone, but was quite sobering”.

Since 2010, Australian NSO’s such as Netball, Soccer and Rugby have made small gains in regards to attracting and engaging fans, securing media coverage and attempting to raise the profile of women’s sport in Australia. It is the AFL, however, that seems to have found the secret sauce and the results are speaking for themselves.

February 2017 saw the competition launch of the National Australian Bank AFL Women’s (AFLW) across Australia and its wildly successful opening weekend offered an opportunity for 176 women to make their professional debuts as AFL players. The public response, buoyed by tickets being provided free of charge, surpassed all expectations. A predicted 12,000 fans for opening fixture, Carlton versus Collingwood, swelled to a sell-out 24,500, with thousands more turned away at the gates. The size of the crowds outside prompted AFL Chief Executive, Gillon McLachlan, to leave the ground and apologise in person to disappointed fans.

In addition to those within the grounds, over 50,000 attended across four matches, on opening weekend. The four games reached just over 2.6 million TV viewers, with the highly anticipated Carlton versus Collingwood clash scoring a peak viewership of 1.1 million. For reference, the 2016 Grey Cup, a traditional fan favourite in Canada, secured an average of 3.9 million viewers, according to the CFL.

“It was almost inconceivable… getting broadcasters to take the risk to show the sport, and then of course engaging all the fans and supporters as well. This is really the dream scenario,” added Greenwood.

So what did the AFL do right?

Marketing and Message

The AFL enlisted the help of brand consultancy Push Collective in the creation of the “W” mark, a statement that signalled a significant step out of the shadow of the men’s game. Through this mark, supported by their brand positioning “See what we create”, the AFL directed focus on the power that female athletes hold in forging their own path and to their collective responsibility in cementing the future of their sport. This authenticity clearly resonated with fans.

This sense of empowerment was echoed by Jenna Wong, the AFL campaign lead and Marketing Manager, in her comments, “We had ambitions to create something bold and empowering and inclusive that would encourage fans to see the game through a different lens as well as rally a generation of young girls.”

Risk

Risk was a huge component in getting this competition off the ground and was shouldered by all involved. The league, with significant collaboration and investment from its host venues and clubs, gave away match tickets at no charge for both week one and week two, which was a clear indication of their focus on fan engagement and on generating brand affinity. They then secured extended partnerships and air-time with Seven and Foxtel, offering coverage rights at no fee. A hugely attractive offer for the broadcasters somewhat negating their own exposure and a move that resulted in significant, professional grade coverage.

Commercial Opportunity The AFL has confirmed support for the women’s competition through a number of well-known brands (Gatorade, Wolf Blass, Special K and title partner The National Australian Bank) by extending their existing partnership of the men’s game. These brands offered their support despite the lack of guaranteed incoming revenue.

The AFL’s impressive list of pre-existing partners (including broadcasters) clearly offered a significant boost in getting this project up and running, however, the message to brands in Canada is clear. These competitions are viable partners, they are attracting new fans and valuable audiences and they can provide a significant value-for-money opportunity. There’s also an opportunity to side-step a high-cost, multi-year commitment, or to expand their commercial presence within an existing NSO relationship. As with any growing property, committed partners that can prove their recognition of the importance of building together are key to long-term success and ultimately deliver a far more authentic message to consumers.

2019 and Beyond

There is an obvious need for competent and measured consideration of the AFLW’s early success in order to avoid financial difficulties in the long term. The AFL’s Chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, attempted to cool early talk of league expansion and pleaded for “a little patience” as the League discuss how best to take the women’s game forward, adding that it was unlikely that they would see more teams until at least the 2019 season.

The league’s risk taking again highlights the AFLW’s goal in securing early engagement, but the competition’s assets and behaviours must later be re-evaluated to ensure the survival of the league, to build on early success and to support those eventual expansion plans, especially as partners start looking for their all-important ROI. It’s then that a real sense of the model will emerge. Only time will tell how consumers will react, once ticket prices start creeping up.

Inspiration
It is clear giving away free tickets or broadcast rights to your competition and exposing your organization to such risk is simply not feasible for the many properties that don’t hold the wealth or established commercial clout enjoyed by the AFL. These actions will undoubtedly raise questions around the sustainability and long term health of the league. However, free tickets really shouldn’t be the focus here. The message should resonate with brands and properties alike, that what the AFL has achieved with “W” is a wonderful mixture of faith, fan engagement, intelligent marketing and, most importantly, highly invested and truly collaborative commercial relationships.

The AFL and their partners focused on building a story and a sense of occasion over generating initial revenue, a tough sell for many properties, and gambled heavily on the consumer engagement that they believed would follow. This certainly is not to say that properties should go ahead and ignore their revenue streams, but the efforts undertaken by the AFL and the subsequent international buzz have highlighted at least two major takeaways for Canadian brands and property’s alike. Firstly, there is a clear appetite amongst consumers to engage with women’s sport and, secondly, securing a productive partnership with a motivated property, should be a strong consideration for forward-thinking brands. Brands willing to roll up their sleeves in order to benefit from the bright and prosperous future of women’s competition here at home.

Season 2, 3 and beyond will tell us about the true success and longevity of the AFLW, more than the 2017 season ever could. However, this story, regardless of its intricacies, should serve as a significant source of inspiration for all those involved in the delivery of competition and promotion of women’s sport.

Feeling inspired? This weekend, May 26th and 27th, Langford BC hosts the Canada Women’s Sevens event, the fifth of six international events making up the annual HSBC Women’s Sevens Series.

Twelve of the world’s top international teams will line up for 38 matches, played over two days, within this Canadian leg of the season. The tournament represents the first home-soil appearance for Canada’s women’s side, as they look to continue a stunning run of form following their Bronze medal-winning performance at Rio 2016 and recent World Tour tournament victory in Sydney, Australia.

After enjoying tremendous success with the inaugural 2016 event, the Canada Women’s Sevens tournament continues to reach for new heights and wider audiences and still offers a significant opportunity to Canadian brands looking for an authentic way to invest dollars and attention into world-class sport.

With help from motivated commercial partners, especially those that are willing to roll up their sleeves, the tournament and its athletes will continue to build a stunning platform for tens of thousands of young women across the country to access one of the most talked about “new” sports on the planet, whether in-stadium or via the online live streams. Similarly, with varying partner levels and a host of consumer touch points, it offers significant commercial value for brands looking to align themselves with a highly-driven sporting property and annual women’s event.