The CEOs part one: How your team will win you back in 2018

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    Last year wasn’t a great one for Australian rugby. That was especially true for the Super Rugby sides, where downward trajectories were felt in results, in viewing numbers, and even worse, in crowds.

    But with a new year comes a new opportunity to start afresh, and more importantly, to win back fans that have gone missing in the last few years.

    How are the four Australian sides going to do that? Well, they’ll tell you themselves.

    I’ve spoken to all four CEOs over the last week and put the same two very obvious questions to them. In the first of two parts, today it’s the Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels; tomorrow will be the NSW Waratahs and Queensland Reds.

    Brumbies – Michael Thomson

    How will your organisation reconnect with frustrated fans after last season?
    It certainly was an interesting year with a lot of challenges off the field.

    From our perspective, we have already started that reconnecting with our fans and I think our fans are feeling that as well. We are seeing it. It’s a continuation of being accessible and involved organisation.

    We take the view that we are a community organisation with an elite football team, rather than the reverse, and we’ll continue to focus on that.

    We have a lot of initiatives in place in terms of reconnecting with groups that perhaps we haven’t been as focussed on as we should have been over the last little while, and that includes things like launching our reconciliation action plan and our indigenous warm-up shirt – a really great visual representation of our commitment to one aspect of our community.

    We will also be taking training sessions out to schools and trying to be out and about more than we have previously. I am very lucky in that I have a new head coach [Dan McKellar] who comes out of a community rugby background, and that sub-elite environment at the Tuggeranong Vikings, so he understands community and he really appreciates the importance of it.

    And then you couple that with what we think will be a pretty exciting way of playing football. We will certainly be changing what we have been doing on the paddock, and that may from time to time may carry risk with it, but I think fans like us to take risk. They like us to play an expansive game and we’ve certainly got the players and the coaching staff that have that mindset, so that will work well.

    The draw itself is pretty good, with the couple of Sunday afternoon games and we’ll be teaming elements around that to be more family-focused. So, there are a whole lot of different initiatives we’ve got going, but for us it is more about re-establishing our creditability and to continuing to build on last year. Our challenges are probably a little bit different then the other Super Rugby clubs in that regard.

    Joe Powell Brumbies Super Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/SNPA, Ross Setford)

    What will be the biggest differences fans will notice this season on and off the field?
    On field, I think the most impressive piece is what I have been seeing on the training paddock at the moment.

    We’ve got an exciting group of young blokes, and when you look at how we played last year there was a lot of focus on set piece. That was probably a continuation of what we saw under Jake White, to an extent, and the fact that we had a 9 and 10 who were effectively playing their first full seasons of Super Rugby – in fact we had a 10 who never played Super Rugby.

    They’re a year older and a year wiser, and you throw Christian [Lealiifano] back into that, who has a lot of vision and likes to play running rugby, likes the throw the ball about. And some of the pickups we got as well, guys like Chance Peni. Even Tom Banks is still young in his professional football career, but we have seen what he can do and the way he blossomed at the back end of last year.

    So, all those things, and the philosophy from the coach staff to have a crack, to look for space and try to play for it. Again, it has been an interesting thing in terms of we’ve done a lot more work holding the football rather than just straight fitness work. What I am hearing from the players is that they have really enjoyed the subtle changes that Dan has bought.

    In terms of off-field there are a whole lot of different things we are doing, including open training sessions, getting out into the community more. Our charity our approach will be very important to us because we know that we have an opportunity to provide positive impact both on and off the pitch, so we will continue to develop that.

    The academy is a really exciting opportunity for us as well; we have about 13 young fellows coming through that academy system now which provides us both with a pipeline, but also provides aspirational goals for some of our younger players. We have a lot of younger talent in the ACT and the region.

    Without an academy it would be very hard transition for some of them, from going from playing schoolboy footy or club footy if you want to get into that professional environment this provides a really great bridge for doing that.

    All the guys in the academy have shown dramatic improvement. There are some really good young guys in there that will be our next generation, and it is really important for us to provide an opportunity for our local players. Women’s rugby is really exciting for us as well. A Super-W team, and a team in the Brisbane Tens. We launched the Tens comp in the ACT last year, and we are also doing things in the Sevens space in southern NSW where the take-up has been really good.

    Membership is tracking pretty well. We are a few weeks away from starting the home games, but certainly feedback has been extremely positive, the numbers seem to be tracking pretty well. We have taken the view that we wanted to make the footy more affordable opportunity to people.

    The draw will help us this year as well because we have a lot of our games early, so we miss a lot of that cold weather. Ultimately people come to the game to be entertained, though, so we have a few initiatives off the field, but also it is really important how we play the game, too.

    It’s interesting; people want the team to win, but it’s how they win that is more important, or even if they lose, how they go about it. We have a great bunch of young guys who are going to go at it flat out this year, though, so people won’t question their commitment.


    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    Melbourne Rebels – Baden Stephenson

    How will your organisation reconnect with frustrated fans after last season?
    We have made some pretty big adjustments over the last three to six months which is really quite exciting, and we realise that going from a private ownership model to being owned by the community is a significate change, so reconnecting with the community and our fans and members was absolutely top of the list for us.

    Ultimately with so much change, it was important to not look too much in the rear-vision mirror and to look forward. We have a new story and a new narrative, and we have been working hard with all of our communications internally and externally about how we position the club, and I think there was a fairly strong disconnect between the community game and the professional game down here in Melbourne for a variety of reasons.

    Our job has been to rebuild those bridges and really have a focus with anyone involved in rugby from under-7s all the way through, that the Rebels are a part of rugby here in Victoria and we are just not an elite franchise that’s not representing them.

    It was slightly risky, but we had really successful members forum in November, which we have never done before, but we filled the town hall and really opened ourselves up and wanted to engage and wanted to hear from the members and get their feedback, and give them an understanding of our direction and where we are going.

    There was some feedback that they felt the team post-games didn’t really connect with the fans – in the early years the team would really get around in and among the fans, and they felt that win, lose or draw they were connected to the team. Given some of our performances and a lack of some profile and confident players who could really dragged the guys around the field to keep that connection with our members and making them feel part of the journey. They felt like a customer rather than as a member inside the tent.

    Amanaki Mafi of the Rebels

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    We have worked really hard with our social media and our digital media, because we want our members to know what is going on here during pre-season, and that’s important to help people feel engaged.

    We made a conscious decision with the board to discount our Blue Rebel Army Membership by 40 per cent (to just $88 for all home games). The environment we are in and most organisations increased membership and ticket prices over the time.

    We have some really good corporate support here, but found our community support behind the post was down – the Storm and Victory do really well with their strong community focus and in Melbourne there are a lot of Polynesians and expats in some of the outer suburbs where it can be difficult to come into games.

    So, we wanted to make it really assessible and affordable and to make it a family and community feel behind the posts. We have had a really good uptake with that particular membership and with three weeks to go we have a strong strategy to drive that and I think we will get some good support in that space.

    What will be the biggest differences fans will notice this season on and off the field?
    I think what’s really impressed me with Dave [Wessels] coming in, and obviously having a new playing group and a new coaching staff, it was really important that we understood who we are playing for.

    Across the club, we’ve worked really hard on our identity. The Ballarat camp was crucial for that, and understanding the history, and where the Rebels got their name from, what the five stars mean on the badge on your chest. The club did that really well before they kicked off in year one, but it’s something that hasn’t always been consistent.

    Dave Wessels Super Rugby 2017

    (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

    The players and the staff have all really bought into that, and now they know what the Rebels are all about. Dave’s got a real skill in being able to create our own story for this particular group, and the story of the Eureka Stockade, and taking on the status quo, and doing something significant; it all ties into Dave’s messaging.

    There will be a clear identity for the playing group, which is really important, and which Dave’s done a really good job with. Something that we will thread through our communications is that we understand that our members and our fans want to see part of themselves in the way the team plays, and so Dave is often talking about what he sees in successful sporting teams around Australia, about having some real toughness and some grit about the performance, and playing a certain style that is recognisable as the type of rugby we’re trying to play.

    Off the field, we’re working really hard and have some good ideas around connecting with our fans, members, and stakeholders on match-day; we want our match-day to have a very different look and feel.

    We’ve made good progress, but we want to sell the fact that our rugby, commercial, and community arms are all very much interlinked and working together, and the community staff here at the Rebels and Victorian Rugby are on the same page down to the fact that there are shared strategies and not just lip-service.

    There’s good cross-over; four of our board are also on the Rugby Victoria board, so the connection between the two organisations and both leaderships is very strong.

    There’s expectations on us this year, internally and externally, and we know that we need to get off to a start. The first Australian game is against the Reds (in Round 2) and we know the eyeballs will be on us.

    He’s only had a short pre-season, about ten weeks – and some of the representative players have only been back four weeks – but Dave knows that it’s about winning from the outset. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about him coming in is that he’s said we can’t be frightened to put ourselves out there. We’ve got to be talking about winning, and it’s got to be part of our mindset.

    He’s been really smart about it; he’s not put out any end goals, he’s working on the mindset at the moment. We’ll have a player-driven leadership group, and Dave’s working extremely close with those guys to ensure it’s not just all driven by the coach, which again is something has been the way of the Rebels in the past.

    Dane Haylett-Petty Wallabies Australia Rugby Union 2017 tall

    (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

    Guys like the predictable ones, Genia and Coleman, but also Geoff Parling’s influence has been great since he arrived. Sam Talakai has been outstanding, leadership-wise, Dane Haylett-Petty is flourishing, Colby Fainga’a, Bill Meakes too.

    There’s no one guy, it’s not on one or two sets of shoulders; there’s a really strong group with different personalities and different skillsets, and they’ll take ownership for parts of the game or standards. It’s been quite refreshing to see; we’ve not always had those natural leaders or elder statesmen who have been there and done that, so that will be a nice shift for us.

    If we’re good enough, the opportunity is there to start the year really well, and there’s no doubt a lot of the off-field stuff will be riding on the on-field results over those first few games.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (153)

    • February 8th 2018 @ 5:04am
      P2R2 said | February 8th 2018 @ 5:04am | ! Report

      A lot of ‘IF’s”

      • Columnist

        February 8th 2018 @ 8:57am
        Brett McKay said | February 8th 2018 @ 8:57am | ! Report

        Only two actually, and neither of them in the context you suggest. Yours is just the third on the page…

      • February 8th 2018 @ 9:04am
        Boris said | February 8th 2018 @ 9:04am | ! Report

        Well the season hasn’t started yet, has it.

    • Roar Guru

      February 8th 2018 @ 6:42am
      Kia Kaha said | February 8th 2018 @ 6:42am | ! Report

      Nice insight thanks, Brett.

      I thought the best way to get bums back on seats was winning. But the Crusaders had some paltry crowds last season.

      Price and volume (and therefore lack of affordability) is more of a factor so glad to see this has been recognized.

      • Columnist

        February 8th 2018 @ 8:59am
        Brett McKay said | February 8th 2018 @ 8:59am | ! Report

        Thanks Kia, it has been interesting that overall winning records haven’t necessarily equated to crowd growth competition-wide. Though I suspect that early season form can do more for crowds than late season form…

    • Columnist

      February 8th 2018 @ 7:41am
      Nicholas Bishop said | February 8th 2018 @ 7:41am | ! Report

      Nice article Brett – Rebels sounding innovative and interesting…

      • Columnist

        February 8th 2018 @ 9:00am
        Brett McKay said | February 8th 2018 @ 9:00am | ! Report

        They do, don’t they! Their social campaigns over the summer have been hard to miss, too.

        • February 8th 2018 @ 9:58pm
          Cuw said | February 8th 2018 @ 9:58pm | ! Report

          Rebels Fixtures:

          Friday, February 23 v Reds (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
          Saturday, March 3 v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
          Friday, March 9 v Brumbies (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
          Sunday, March 18 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
          Friday, Mar 23 v Sharks (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
          Friday, March 30 v Hurricanes (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
          Saturday, April 14 v Jaguares (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
          Saturday, April 21 (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
          Friday, April 27 v Stormers (DHL Newlands, Cape Town)
          Friday, May 4 v Crusaders (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
          Saturday, May 12 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
          Friday, May 25 v Sunwolves (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
          Saturday, June 2 v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
          Friday, June 29 v Waratahs (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
          Friday, July 6 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
          Saturday, July 14 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)

        • February 8th 2018 @ 9:59pm
          Cuw said | February 8th 2018 @ 9:59pm | ! Report

          Waratahs Fixtures:

          Round 1: BYE
          Saturday, February 24 v Stormers (Allianz Stadium)
          Saturday, March 3 v Sharks (Kings Park)
          Saturday, March 10 v Jaguares (Estadio Jose Amalfitani)
          Sunday, March 18 v Rebels (Allianz Stadium)
          Round 6: BYE
          Saturday, March 31 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium)
          Saturday, April 7 v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium)
          Saturday, April 14 v Reds (Sydney Cricket Ground)
          Friday, April 20 v Lions (Allianz Stadium)
          Round 11: BYE
          Saturday, May 5 v Blues (Allianz Stadium)
          Saturday, May 12 v Crusaders (AMI Stadium)
          Saturday, May 19 v Highlanders (Allianz Stadium)
          Saturday, May 26 v Chiefs (FMG Stadium)
          Saturday, June 2 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium)
          Friday, June 29 v Rebels (AAMI Park)
          Saturday, July 7 v Sunwolves (Allianz Stadium)
          Saturday, July 14 v Brumbies (Allianz Stadium)

      • February 8th 2018 @ 10:17am
        Taylorman said | February 8th 2018 @ 10:17am | ! Report

        Yes doesn’t it, man that’s refreshing and what grass roots is about.

    • February 8th 2018 @ 7:42am
      Jamie said | February 8th 2018 @ 7:42am | ! Report

      Hi Brett

      Excellent read! Cant wait for the Waratahs. I have made a few commentators in other forums about the lack of social media engagement from the tahs. They have picked up their game somewhat but the rebels for example have been doing a great job since last year.

      • Columnist

        February 8th 2018 @ 9:01am
        Brett McKay said | February 8th 2018 @ 9:01am | ! Report

        I think you’ll read an acknowledgement of that tomorrow in fact, Jamie…

        • February 8th 2018 @ 9:08am
          Jamie said | February 8th 2018 @ 9:08am | ! Report

          Hi Brett

          Great! A lot more can be done (IMO) across all teams. I actually this line sums it up re: fans “They felt like a customer rather than as a member inside the tent”.

          I really want to identify with my team and I am very passionate about Rugby and happy to part with whatever dollars I can spare(Tickets, merchandise, Foxtel, etc) however as Rebel CEO mentions member want to be part of something not just consumers.

    • February 8th 2018 @ 8:55am
      Tim Rogers said | February 8th 2018 @ 8:55am | ! Report

      It’s ok we’ll just twiddle our thumbs over here in the west as we are ostracised from the game almost entirely.

      • February 8th 2018 @ 9:10am
        Boris said | February 8th 2018 @ 9:10am | ! Report

        Understandable mate but hopefully the Force will live again. In the meantime your whole organization has pretty much been transplanted to Melbourne which, while unfortunate that it happened like this, I’m glad to see the Force players, coaches and backroom staff staying together so the Force have a strong flavor within the Rebels. This is better than them being spread far and wide as the Force mentality and style lives on.

        • February 8th 2018 @ 1:41pm
          AndyS said | February 8th 2018 @ 1:41pm | ! Report

          That’s not going to happen. Even putting aside all the vested interests and inertia, the ARU would not have handled the removal of the Force the way they did if there was ever any possibility they might return. I doubt they even expected to visit again.

    • February 8th 2018 @ 9:02am
      GrahamE said | February 8th 2018 @ 9:02am | ! Report

      Nothing innovative in what the reboels are doing ( other than giving away memberships) everything else is just copying what the Force was doing in WA.

      • Roar Guru

        February 8th 2018 @ 8:59pm
        Kia Kaha said | February 8th 2018 @ 8:59pm | ! Report

        Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

        • February 8th 2018 @ 9:56pm
          Cuw said | February 8th 2018 @ 9:56pm | ! Report

          and innovation has its limits. after all we are talking something very general and simple.

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