Post-Covid, can the NRL write its own script and continue to monetise “insatiable” appetites for live sport?
While semi pro rugby union games in Sydney's Eastern suburbs appear to have no problems packing in the fans, the NRL harbours valid concerns that people may think twice about flocking to stadia in the coming weeks. It will cut its budgets accordingly, says head of marketing Peter Jarmain. Only those that can prove they move the needle will get a slice. Meanwhile, it faces a new challenge in attracting the next generation of fans - who prefer skimming highlights to watching a full 80 minutes.
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The NRL season was all ready to go. Then Covid hit – and all bets were off. Literally. But despite lockdowns, head of marketing Peter Jarmain says fans were “insatiable”, as was the media.
In a bid to satisfy those appetites, NRL did what it could under lockdown. Classic games. Players doing home renovations. Players doing tricks. Players talking about mental health challenges.
“So we were able to create a lot of content and that really helped fans stay engaged with the platform,” says Jarmain. “So that was good.”
Then in May, the players took to the field, albeit to empty stadiums. Not quite the same experience, says Jarmain.
“But I think if there's one thing that Covid reinforced for us, it's really the social and economic value of sport. So I think, clearly through that period where fans were bingeing on scripted drama, it created a very significant pent up demand for our live game. And so when we got back [into play], we had great TV ratings, record TV ratings, I think, and that was really good.”
Having no fans in the stand was “a challenge” for both fans and players, admits Jarmain. The NRL's answer? Introducing crowd noise and cardboard cutout fans “which we unashamedly pinched from the Bundesliga in Germany”.
While Jarmain says figurine fans and social media messages writ large on stadium screens helped create some kind of atmosphere during the lean times of lockdown, “I think now we’re obviously into a different world where fans are starting to get back into the game,” he says. “So we are into that next phase now. Which is great.”
The question is what the next phase looks like.
“I saw a recent study which said that 55% of people would be reluctant to attend a mass entertainment sporting event. Now that's a global study. So I'm sure this scenario here would be better, but there's clearly going to be an impact on people's disposable income. And obviously, as an entertainment product, that potentially could have an impact on us.”
While the second surge of Covid infections places a caveat over just about everything, Jarmain says the NRL is “obviously expecting crowds back”, with August usually a bumper month.
However that is far from guaranteed. Despite recent evidence to the contrary, at least within semi-pro rugby union, there are valid concerns that people might be less enthusiastic to go to mass gatherings post-Covid, or at least post-Covid 1.0.
“We're getting some intel from our research partners that the landscape is going to have changed somewhat since before all this happened,” says Jarmain. “I saw a recent study which said that 55% of people would be reluctant to attend a mass entertainment sporting event, even if they're allowed to do so.
“Now that's a global study. So I'm sure this scenario here would be better, but there's clearly going to be an impact on people's disposable income. And obviously, as an entertainment product, that potentially could have an impact on us.”
“Like many marketing functions we will need to become more efficient. We will no doubt have to do more with less and so it's really probably just having a razor sharp focus on those things that really do drive the net contributions.”
To counter smaller crowds, the code will start activating retail spend in a bid to get bums on seats says Jarmain. But it may have to do so without the income that accrues from full venues. Which implies some people won’t be getting the ad dollars they used to get.
“We'll certainly get back to the fundamentals of building the brand in the short term. We'll need to get back to the task, hopefully, of selling tickets to finals, grand finals, State of Origin,” he says.
“And I guess like many marketing functions we will need to become more efficient. We will no doubt have to do more with less and so it's really probably just having a razor sharp focus on those things that really do drive the net contributions, for the brand or commercial outcome,” Jarmain admits.
“In the past we've done a few things without having a clear sense of their impact. So we need to probably get stronger data and research to track what actually moves the dial and be really clear around our areas of focus.”
“Younger fans probably consume the game in a slightly different way. They probably have less of an appetite for long form content. They're more interested in shorter form of content to some extent.”
The choice of a new generation?
As well as stripping the fat from its marketing spend, and helping individual clubs “build a relevant brand narrative,” Jarmain says the NRL will double down on engagement with growth segments in a bid to emerge stronger – particularly with younger fans.
While he says they are “certainly engaged with the game”, Jarmain admits the new generation of fans “probably consume the game in a slightly different way. They probably have less of an appetite for long form content. They're more interested in shorter form of content to some extent”.
In other words, the digital generation doesn’t have the attention span to watch a whole 80 minutes?
“Look, I mean, that's somewhat of a generalisation,” suggests Jarmain, “but we're certainly seeing they have a strong appetite for short form content. That's across the world, not just in the context of rugby league
“So we need to make sure that our game is presented in highlights, [which are] as compelling as can be, I guess. And their platform of choice is often YouTube or one of those. So we need to make sure that we've got the right sort of content to engage that fan base.”
Live and unscripted
Jarmain says NRL’s live, unscripted aspect is its biggest lure. Meanwhile, the breadth and depth of clubs, their teams, local connections, histories and rivalries, the stories of individual players, provide huge opportunity to build deep-rooted brand connections.
However, that unscripted nature can also lead to PR challenges, especially when players are part of the brand – and fall short of what is expected.
If the code is keen to engage with young fans, it needs to ensure it is engaging with them in the right way.
“Players do have a responsibility to protect the reputation of the game,” says Jarmain. “And so if they bring it into disrepute they will face tough penalties, I guess. But like any sport around the world, our players are a huge element of our brands and they're sort of the primary point of connection. So, it's important that we continue to work with them and address those issues.”
“As a marketing function, I guess, it's our role really to promote the positive side of our players and 99% of our players are doing amazing things in the community. We have a very diverse, very unique playing group. And so our role is to tell those stories more effectively and make sure that people's view of our game is not skewed by the actions of a few.”
This is the final edition in the nine-part Reset Now series from the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA), Nine and Mi3.
View last week's video with Tourism Australia's CMO Susan Coghill below: