Less footy, more women, youth, lifestyle and entertainment sees "massive reinvention, huge success" for AFL
Listen to the Mi3 Audio Edition below:
“I guess in hiring women, there’s no harm in the media department trying to get a different lens on what the AFL can do and how the AFL can engage all audiences. But the plan we had in place around broadening our audiences with women, and youth, and dipping our toe into entertainment, has been massively expedited.”
A frantic scramble to create ‘digital makegoods’ products for the AFL’s corporate partnerships to engage fans during a suspended season and broadening AFL Media’s lifestyle and entertainment content to women and younger segments has been a “huge success” through COVID, say former media execs, Kylie Rogers and Sarah Wyse.
“We’re all working seven days a week but frankly, I think we’re now in great shape,” says Rogers, who joined the AFL as General Manager, Commercial, after leaving Mamamia as managing director after a long career at Network Ten.
Rogers’ massive remit covers all AFL consumer revenue from 18 AFL stores and clubs, merchandise, ticketing, memberships, Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium (owned by the AFL), experimental and experiential projects like the AFL Kitchen & Bar at Melbourne Airport, and corporate partnerships, which she says were “traditional and one dimensional” when she arrived three years ago.
Corporate partnerships: From staid to start-up mentality
A modernised corporate partnerships strategy under Rogers was already underway before COVID but the crisis, as we are seeing across a range of sectors, has forced innovation and change on organisations that only a pandemic can spur.
“We were looking at branding opportunities on jumpers, physical assets and the like,” says Rogers when she first arrived in 2017. “Sarah and I have been talking of late about how we feel the business culturally has sort of pivoted to a start-up mentality, to 'move fast and break things', and we weren’t necessarily like that prior to COVID.
“We’ve spent a lot of time coming up with digital makegoods and shifting a lot of physical assets that our partners have funded. We have new digital products that our fans can engage with at home when they can’t go to games. We’ve been really successful in coming up with a number of new alternative digital products. I’ve never seen the industry at large so aligned and collaborative.”
Rogers cites two standout examples – the flip of NAB’s national Auskick kids footy program to an at-home digital alternative and the creation in ten days of the AFL Games Network, which has 40 AFL players livestreaming themselves playing various games on YouTube and Twitch. “They are two we’re particularly proud of,” says Rogers. “We’re attracting a lot of international fans and it’s hilarious seeing them engage in our sport for the first time.”
“We’re up 50% on audiences versus the off-season. That’s really shocked everybody given the workforce capacity that we’re currently operating in.”
Accor: a benchmark for new-world corporate partnerships
Even before COVID, Rogers cites Accor as a standout example of how companies are changing their approach to alliances and partnerships.
Until recently Accor was solely the AFL’s hotel partner. But in working through opportunities for deeper involvement and alignment with some of Accor’s broader corporate values on diversity, the hotel group and the AFL started co-producing tailored TV content in Accor hotel rooms - and now is the single biggest employer of players in the AFL Women’s League.
One of the biggest challenges for female players is they are paid part-time by the AFL. “Our female players have to hold down a job as well as play sport week in, week out,” says Rogers. “Accor is now the largest employer of AFLW players. They’re training our girls, employing our girls and we’re producing content that engages customers. It’s brilliant. It’s gone from a fairly traditional partnership to a very deep relationship.”
“Our female players have to hold down a job as well as play sport week in, week out, Accor is now the largest employer of AFLW players. They’re training our girls, employing our girls and we’re producing content that engages customers. It’s brilliant.”
AFL Media: entertainment and lifestyle content booms
Sarah Wyse started as the Head of AFL Media 18 months ago and the intent from the get-go was to broaden and build AFL’s audience and fan engagement through social media and its owned and operated channels.
The AFL has about 3 million fans across its social networks and 4 million on its website and app. COVID, she says, has expedited the new strategy and results.
Off season audience growth – or a season with no games like the current – are up 50% as non-game content was created and invented on the fly. The result, says Wyse, is softer content that humanises the game, the people and the fans.
She cites a COVID video series with AFL Players called “Last Time I Cried” as an example of content that has engaged lighter AFL fans and more women (Rogers points out that women account for 30% of AFL playing participation across the code, up from 10% three years ago).
“We’re up 50% on audiences versus the off-season,” says Wyse. “That’s really shocked everybody given the workforce capacity that we’re currently operating in. We’re obviously down year-on-year based on the in-season numbers, but that’s largely driven by the news and the live vision. If you take those things out, we’re up massively.”
A big shift to more video through COVID has also proven a hit – including a documentary series with Amazon.
“The big opportunity that Kylie and I pinpointed when we joined the business was the opportunity around sports entertainment, which wasn’t really something that the team were that focused on. It was about the actual game itself, the news and the news generated around the live game,” says Wyse.
“I guess in hiring women, there’s no harm in the media department trying to get a different lens on what the AFL can do and how the AFL can engage all audiences,” she adds.
“But the plan we had in place around broadening our audiences with women, and youth, and dipping our toe into entertainment, has been massively expedited. That’s been the silver lining Kylie was referring to.”
“There’s no doubt some of the digital programs will remain relevant. Auskick at home we found really works for families around the country because they can fit it into their time. But we can’t wait for the games to begin.”
When the AFL season kicks off next week, Rogers and Wyse say much of what has been created through COVID will stay. The accelerated audience and content strategy will continue around the game and many of the digital products that were invented in the past 12 weeks will remain.
“There’s no doubt some of the digital programs will remain relevant,” says Rogers. “Auskick at home we found really works for families around the country because they can fit it into their time. But we can’t wait for the games to begin.”
For Wyse, it more of what AFL Media has been doing on 15% resource. “It will be much more video-centric, more towards entertainment, not just the live game.”