The AFL's Marketing From The 1970s to Today
Updated: Jul 1
The sport of Australian football would not be the billion-dollar industry that it is today if not for its marketing.
In the mid-1970s, the Victorian Football League was struggling with an image crisis. The game of Australian football had grown stale among the younger audience and the sport’s popularity was under genuine threat by other codes, namely soccer. In 1974, the Australian national soccer team, the Socceroos, had just qualified for its first-ever World Cup and the round ball game was beginning to grow in the hearts of young Australians.
A NEW ERA OF MARKETING
But the VFL had an ace up its sleeve.
Enter Jim McKay from worldwide consultancy firm J. Walter Thompson – the company in charge of the league’s marketing efforts. McKay’s influence during this time would ultimately change football and the way the game is marketed forever. His first step to create revenue was to promote the idea of teams displaying its sponsors on their jumpers and shorts.
Later he would develop corporate partnerships with insurance companies and travel agencies and within a couple of years had VFL-endorsed breakfast cereals, household products and even school books (Football Ltd., 1995).
Around this time, the VFL ran competitions in the major Melbourne newspapers with the aim of collecting valuable data, such as name, age and team supported, which would later be used for marketing purposes. McKay’s newly-established VFL Properties Division became the league’s third-highest source of revenue and McKay was named Advertising News’ Marketing Man of the Year for 1980.
CONNECTING WITH THE NEXT GENERATION
The next strategy was to connect with a younger, more relevant audience; the game needed to become cool again. So, VFL representatives went out and formed relationships with everyone worth knowing in the country. Television and radio personalities were asked which team they followed and sent scarves donning their supported team’s colours. They were also invited as special guests to matches and pre-game functions.
McKay wanted football to constantly be the topic of conversation, and he succeeded. His influence behind-the-scenes played a large role in growing the sport throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s.
PINK HELICOPTERS AND THE HIGH-FLYING SWANS
Fast forward a couple of years to the mid-1980s and football had entered a new frontier with the expansion into the Sydney market. In 1982, the South Melbourne Football Club relocated to Sydney and a few years later would become the first team to be privately owned. The man who owned the club - Dr. Geoffrey Edelsten - was a flamboyant businessman who travelled stylishly in mink-lined, pink sports cars and helicopters.
He was a man who knew how to market both himself and a football side. The Swans' relocation to Sydney was a landmark event in the game's history and ensuring the club was successful was paramount to the VFL's future. But there was no denying the city of Sydney was hostile territory for the newly-rebranded team.
The first objective was to control the narrative. Swans executives built relationships with influential figures across the city and wined and dined with the rugby league loving sports journalists.
The club offered articles featuring Swans players to nearly every publication in the country. One player was a keen golfer, so his story was sold to a golf magazine, while Modern Bride were alerted to any upcoming player engagements and weddings.
Sydney was also the first football club to actively market campaigns towards attracting women to games and by the end of 1986 they had more than double the number of female members of its nearest rival. The Swans became the sexiest football club in the league. They were everywhere.
30 YEARS ON, THE DIGITAL ERA
It's 30 years on and despite many of the marketing tactics used by McKay and the Sydney Swans still being in play today, we have moved towards a new digital era. All 18 clubs are placing a strong emphasis on social media marketing, which is imperative for survival in today’s climate.
To say these modern-day strategies are bland is too subjective an opinion, but the approaches implemented by these clubs seem formulaic and systematic across the competition. The reason for this could be traced to how consistently successful these digital platforms have proven to be for these clubs and the AFL itself.
In 2017, the AFL boasted Facebook had generated a 20-to-1 return-on-investment from ad spend and an extra $4 million in revenue through 120,000 ticket sales (AdNews, 2018). Throughout the season, the AFL clubs worked closely with the league allowing it access to their official Facebook pages so that they could create and optimise customised advertisements relevant to each team’s supporters (Facebook, 2018).
The league also provided an in-house service that tracked all single-game ticket advertising across the platform. Images highlighting unique match day experiences as well as action shots of the league’s most marketable players were used in the ad creatives. These creatives were then split-tested to further optimise ticket-sale campaigns.
The AFL has also implemented artificial intelligence in their digital strategies by using Facebook Messenger Bots. Despite a few teething problems leaving impatient fans frustrated, these bots have enabled supporters to ask about ticket prices, team information, fixtures and more (Marketing Mag, 2018).
DRAWING INSPIRATION FROM THE AFL
From Jim McKay’s efforts in the 1970s, through to the interstate expansion club marketing efforts of the 1980s and 90s, to the digital era that we live in today, the AFL has shown an ability to lead the way over other Australian sporting codes with its marketing strategies.
Sporting organisations outside of the AFL and Australian football can implement these strategies to engage with their fans too. Many of these techniques and ideas, especially the more recent digital ones, are applicable to smaller budgets and markets.
Even small businesses unrelated to football can draw inspiration from the AFL and employ similar tactics. Why not try to engage local, smaller-scale celebrities and sports stars for guest appearances?
Are you a fishing charter company? Reach out to an AFL star you see posting fishing photos on Instagram and form a partnership. Are you a fine-dining restaurant and overhear that someone influential is going to be in the area? Invite them along, treat them well and ask them to share on social media.
The opportunities are endless for the creative thinker.