The NSW government’s decision to invest over two billion taxpayer dollars into stadium redevelopment was met with a tidal wave of criticism.
Online petitions were launched, social media went into a frenzy, and countless articles were dedicated to sabotaging this suspect stadium strategy. And that was just Peter FitzSimons.
After months of due diligence and public forums, the Berejiklian government eventually backed down from their original plan in favour of a more modest approach. Instead of knocking down and rebuilding ANZ Stadium, it was announced last week that the Olympic centrepiece will instead receive a fresh lick of paint, saving the public coffers around a half a billion dollars.
Instead of taking the Daily Telegraph’s approach and bagging Todd Greenberg for his involvement – or lack thereof – in this stadium saga, I thought I’d take a more positive position and give the NRL some free advice.
If they really want to fill seats, here are five things that rugby league needs to do.
Improve the cost and quality of concessions
The selection, quality and cost of stadium concessions is unacceptable across most Australian rugby league venues. It’s been that way for years. Like
an airport food court, stadiums seem to operate outside the basic rules of society. Fancy a meat pie? That’ll be $6. Maybe you’d prefer a burger? $12 please. How about a luke-warm beer to wash away that awful taste? That’s another $9.
This might seem like a trivial nit to pick, but it actually has an enormous impact on a person’s willingness to attend a game. A recent report by Andrew Guerra from the United States investigating the decline in college sport attendance uncovered that, for 28 per cent of fans, concessions and stadium food were the most enjoyable aspect of watching live sport.
Conversely, the two top reasons for people not wanting to attend a game were cost (36%) and having to wait in long lines (33%) – both of which are central to the Sydney stadium experience. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Take the Atlanta Falcons for example. With the paint still drying on his shiny, new $1.5 billion stadium, team owner Arthur Blank made a calculated decision to offer the NFL’s lowest concession prices – which included $2 hot dogs, $3 nachos, and $5 beers. He figured that any loss in the mark-up from food and beverages sales would be recouped through increased volume, with fans staying longer and eating more.
He was right. In the stadium’s first year of operation, attendance was up by approximately 6000 people per home game. During those games, fans spent an average of 16 per cent more on concessions, which resulted in a 53 per cent jump in overall food and beverage sales. And thanks to the wide variety of inexpensive options, Atlanta supporters recorded the highest satisfaction rating in the league.
Judging by the initial reviews from the new Optus Stadium in Perth, this model is yet to reach Australian shores. But the NRL would be foolish to ignore it.
With three new or refurbished stadiums set to open across Sydney over the next decade, the NRL have a rare opportunity to break the Australian sporting mould and win back some hearts and minds through their stomachs.
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Getting on social
Social media is no longer just the domain of the young and unemployed. These days, people of all ages are connecting and interacting via a multitude of online platforms. I was shocked when I learnt just how much time my very own mother spends on Facebook, and how savvy she is at using the technology (hint – never ‘friend’ your Mum on Facebook).
Sport is one of the most heavily consumed online commodities, and rugby league is no exception. Whether it’s websites like The Roar, the digital arm of publishing houses like News Limited, fan sites, supporter groups or even just content generated by the players themselves, social media is flooded with NRL information on a daily basis. But the problem is, very little of it is being generated by those running the game.
Why is social media so important to increasing game day attendance? In Guerra’s report, it was found that of students who followed their team on Facebook, 72 per cent of them attended three or more home games. Conversely, of those who didn’t follow their team on Facebook, that number dropped to just 44 per cent. That trend held true for other social media platforms, with supporters who engaged with their team on Twitter (61%), Snapchat (47%) and Instagram (48%) more likely to attend three or more home games than those who didn’t.
And it makes sense. The more engaged you are with a brand, be it a type of beer, a fast food chain or a football team, the more likely you are to consume it. Companies like Coca-Cola and McDonalds spend billions of dollars each year on innovative marketing campaigns all in an attempt to engage with you, the consumer.
The betting agencies got wind of this idea of engaging with the rugby league public via social media a few years ago. They realised that simply publishing odds and markets wasn’t enough to generate repeat business and create loyalty to their brand. So they fully embraced social media and transformed their digital footprint from that of a dull, information-based experience to something that resembled more of fan site.
All of a sudden SportsBet were publishing rugby league memes on Facebook, Ladbrokes were posting funny videos on Twitter, and the TAB had fans singing Bon Jovi covers to retired footy stars. Betting agencies went from a faceless, corporate money-pit to just one of the boys. And it didn’t happen by accident.
It’s not too late for the NRL to jump on this social media bandwagon and get a piece of the action, but they need to start delivering content that people actually want to engage with. A browse of the NRL’s official website comes with more vanilla per serve than a tub of Ben and Jerry’s. People view it as an overly filtered, heavily regulated mouthpiece for the game, and as such it has little credibility among supporters.
Instead, the NRL need to take a look at what their fans are responding to on social media, and start creating content that caters to their tastes. An engaged fan is a happy fan, and a happy fan is more likely to part with some of their hard earned to go along and support their team.
(Classic stuff, guys.)
Segment and target your audience
The nature of the NRL schedule means that certain fixtures are going to suit some people more than others. Thursday evening games are never going to be family-friendly; just like a 6pm Friday night kick-off is never going to be convenient for your average Dolly Parton.
So instead of lamenting the rigidity of the schedule, the NRL should use it to their advantage by targeting different sections of their audience based on the timing of each game.
A 7:30pm kick-off is the perfect opportunity to target the 20-something market. These are the supporters who are likely to have a few drinks before the game and then kick on after the final whistle. So why not create an environment where they can experience all of this without ever leaving the stadium?
This could be as simple as putting on cheap drinks, free WiFi and live music in the hours preceding the game. Local craft breweries could take it in turns providing the beer, pop-up gin and whisky bars could be added to cater to the more discerning palates, and a fried chicken food truck could be parked out the front to keep everybody happy. Throw in a couple of big screens showing the earlier game, and this already sounds like a better way to spend an afternoon than sinking schooners at the local.
Once the game has finished, the festivities could continue with local bands playing on the field right after the conclusion of play. The young people of Sydney are forever moaning about the closure of live music venues throughout the city, so this would be an ideal solution.
In the same vein, Saturday and Sunday afternoon fixtures should be more family-friendly than The Wiggles on Ice (the frozen kind that is). With cost being the main limiting factor in attracting families, ticket prices to these games should be heavily discounted, and people should be able to bring an esky of their own food and non-alcoholic drinks.
In terms of pre and post-game entertainment for the kids, the NRL really need to lift their game. If I wanted jumping castles and face painting, I’d just go to Bunnings, where at least I’d get something decent to eat.
On-field coaching clinics and skills competitions are a must, and they should be run by current (injured) and former NRL players. Kids of all ages should be passing balls to Danny Buderus, practicing their side-step with Benji Marshall, and fielding grubbers from Ruan Sims. If this sort of entertainment was on offer at every home game, good luck keeping your kids at home on the couch.
The fact is that the NRL and its clubs need to stop viewing fixtures as just games of football, and start viewing them as entertainment opportunities. They should be doing whatever it takes to get fans through the gates early, and keep them there well after the final whistle has blown.
Loyalty cards are everywhere. I can’t buy something in a supermarket, petrol station or restaurant without someone trying to sign me up and offer me bonus points.
Why? Because they work. You’re more likely to return to the same coffee shop if you know a free cappuccino is only three stamps away, just like you’re more likely to fly with Qantas if you’re collecting frequent flyer miles. It’s just human nature.
So why doesn’t the NRL get in on the action? One possible way to encourage people to attend games more regularly would be the passport model, where fans could stamp their club passport at every game they attend. It could work a little something like this:
The above is just one of many possible models, and it could be modified and adapted to suit each individual club. For a team like Manly, whose supporters rarely travel, why not incentivise them to attend away fixtures? Or for a club like the Titans, who struggle for numbers at their home games, why not offer heavily discounted tickets when you buy in bulk (50 per cent discount when you buy tickets for five or more home games in a single transaction)?
Even clubs who do a lot of travelling, like North Queensland or New Zealand, have an opportunity to partner with airlines or hotel chains, and reward fans that travel with their team.
And it needn’t be just individual attendance which is rewarded. Any parent with school-aged children will be all too familiar with the Coles ‘Sports for Schools’ program, which awards sporting equipment vouchers with every purchase. A similar scheme would work wonderfully in the NRL.
Every time a child attends game, they could be given a token which they then deposit in the box allocated to their school or junior football side. At the end of the season, the school or club with the most tokens would receive a personal coaching clinic from their NRL team, or a group of players from that NRL side could pay a visit to their school.
These might seem like simple ideas, but they’re effective. If massive corporations like Wesfarmers, Qantas and the big banks are utilising these methods to retain customers, then there’s no reason why the NRL shouldn’t follow suit.
This one is a total no-brainer. People love free gear. It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, male or female, a Central Coast tradie or a North Shore blue blood – we all swoon for swag.
We don’t even seem to care what it is; if it’s free, we’ll fight for it like a flock of Bondi seagulls squabbling over the final hot chip.
American sports have mastered the art of the free giveaway. From the moment you set foot in a US stadium or arena, the freebies begin. Whether it’s lucky door prizes, halftime seat draws, kiss-cam kit or the fabled T-shirt cannon, free gear has become as much a part of the game-day experience as watered down beer and tailgating.
Going to a rugby league game is the complete opposite experience. From the overpriced programs to the marked-up merchandise, attending an NRL match attracts more gouging than a Nate Myles tackle. Instead of using the gameday experience to captivate fans and drive repeat business, the NRL treats their supporters like walking, money-filled piñatas.
But this is easily fixed – just start giving away free stuff! It could be as simple as complimentary meat pies or team posters on arrival to something as memorable as signed jerseys and free tickets for fans in selected seats. Players and mascots should be kicking footballs into the stands at every opportunity, the coaching staff should be handing out training gear as they walk to the box, and even the ground staff could be giving away free gear courtesy of the stadium sponsors.
As I said at the top, I’m totally in favour of spending on stadiums. But unless the NRL makes some considerable changes to the way in which they engage with the rugby league public, we’ll end up with state of the art sporting facilities and nobody around to enjoy them.
Todd Greenberg has shown over the last few weeks that he’s unafraid to make tough decisions for the betterment of the sport, and I’m confident that by the times the doors open on those new stadiums, the NRL will be ready.