One of the biggest issues in any PR campaign is to try to find a way to change mindsets.
PR, particularly in sports marketing, usually starts with a problem to solve.
That problem evolves internally or externally, and PR then uses metrics to try to change conversations and perceptions.
Changing mindsets is never easy, and the days of changing mindset through one focused slogan and marketing message is incredibly difficult.
It’s hard after all to break a habit….
But it’s not impossible….
We’ve written before that the emerging AFLW culture is significantly different from the “footy” culture that people are used to.
The supportive nature of the fan base, the drive to be inclusive and the humor of the league have all formed over 3 seasons within the AFLW community and fan base.
None of these values are reflected in mainstream media coverage of the league.
They are best found online and independent media.
They are found in individual writers and threads on social media that beg never to have their space invaded by trolling.
AFLW doesn’t have the marketing baggage that “footy” does.
It should never aspire to replicate the marketing nature of “footy”, even in lazy moments of thought.
Breaking the established marketing habits of how to sell “footy” when AFLW has completely different values is proving incredibly difficult.
We wrote in the last blog that while we don’t expect all female fans to give up their male team support.
The day may come though when enough support may drift to AFLW to be commercially noticeable to the existing male game.
Out of that there comes a point where male footy culture has to change.
No one should doubt that challenging and changing male football culture is a very difficult task.
It is truly the proverbial tough nut to crack.
Simplistic gestures of support like having an AFLW player on a football panel, or the mere suggestion that AFL add an M to distinguish, give certain online trolls an attack of the vapors.
The iconography of “footy” is male, it always has been, and so are the discussions about it.
The way it is covered and discussed comes from very male, blokey origins.
There are so many ingrained conversations, from BBQs to boardrooms, that are different variants around the notion of young boys growing up to be sportsmen.
That Dad will want to kick the ball with them as they grow up.
The stale, soaked beer belch of John Elliott talking about sheilas playing football is still embedded in lounge rooms across Australia, where the males have the remote.
The landscape, the prism through which a male is marketed sport from a young age, hasn’t evolved to be fully inclusive, not yet.
Challenging marketing norms has a glacially slow process.
No one has successfully cracked the code that says males are the predominant purchaser, participant and advocate of sports.
This is especially true when it comes to “footy”.
Neither has the notion in marketing discussions that young girls might want to grow up kicking said same ball, idolising their own sporting heroes.
In football especially, there’s so much cultural baggage around boys being boys, around who gets to kick the footy and about who gets forgiven for what that changing the mindset of the average Herald Sun sports reader can seem impossible.
After all, it’s within this decade that Cassie Lane was chased out of a Collingwood function being lectured about “not controlling her man” when Alan Didak was drunk and troublesome.
The suffocating, relentless emphasis of football commentary is male.
This goes from the blokey bloke world of Triple M through to mainstream media calling John Elliott up for opinions, via Kelli Underwood being treated as a novelty or a NAB Cup trial on commentary.
It’s been the female fan who has had to adapt, to shelve dreams of playing the game, to accept the male fan who dismisses her opinion.
It’s been the female fan who is to be trolled about opinions, to never have a truly safe place to talk about football as an equal.
To aspire to a flippy frock on a rotisserie at the Brownlow, but never to step out on the trademarked “hallowed turf”.
If you believe in the maxim you can’t be what you can’t see, the imagery of male footballers being everywhere is potent.
If you believe in the maxim you can’t be what you can’t see, so is so many years without a female sporting role model.
None of this is revelatory, but it’s worth noting, because it sets out a very clear PR problem.
When everything is ingrained into the culture that football is male, the commentary is male, and the landscape is set up that it’s the son set up to kick the football in the backyard, is there a way to truly challenge much of that marketing landscape?
All of which brings us to Erin Phillips…
Phillips is the leagues icon, but trying to explain why that is to people not invested in AFLW can be difficult to articulate.
The traditional football coverage would point out that she is the league’s best player, which is unquestionably true.
It’s also true that being the best at a sport or the best in a league doesn’t necessarily translate to becoming iconic.
The outpouring of emotion, respect and tears that came from Phillips knee injury in the Grand Final isn’t something that automatically extends to just the best player in a sport.
The best player in sport can be injured without social media as one typing “Dear god no….”
When we talk about the marketing of AFLW, intrinsically we start with the notion this league is set up as an aspirational place for young girls to play football.
That is a fair marketing goal, to grow the game through creating future participants.
A lot of the leagues (admittedly limited) marketing strategy has been around the possibilities of the future, of young girls having a league of their own.
The tantalising prospect of a future generation of female participants in football changing the conversation and solving our original marketing problem about the language of “footy” should always be something to strive for.
Those young girls of course are not supported through purchasing power and merchandise that is available for them to buy, but that’s a topic for other discussions.
Where the league hasn’t thought through its marketing strategies is in finding and telling the stories of those old enough to have missed out on playing in AFLW.
The stories of those who missed out by a few years, those who’s aspirations to kick the footy were dismissed.
In the rush to the future, AFLW can sometimes overlook the present, not celebrate whats happening right now.
It hasn’t ever sought to acknowledge or market to its genuine pioneers from the past either, or those who faced the same barriers as we discussed earlier in the blog.
It doesn’t celebrate it’s present, market its champions, appreciate or live in the moment nearly enough, let alone acknowledge women’s footballs past.
For all the marketing conversations about idolisation between younger fans and its adult heroes, it doesn’t always acknowledge the bond between adult fans and players, those inspired by seeing peers play the game.
The discussions about Erin Phillips don’t always reflect that, that Phillips is inspirational to all generations.
While it is something special to think of an 8 or 9-year-old girl aspiring to meet or be Phillips, there’s something special to those who grew up dismissed or overlooked.
Those who had their hopes of playing football stopped at a certain point because they were female that should always be considered.
When discussing just why Phillips is iconic, that should be our starting point, because she is one of those people who had their football career shortened.
Phillips footy career was within a stroke of a pen of never happening.
That matters more than has been discussed.
If there is a lament that a brilliant athlete had to play a “men’s” sport to transcend when she was already a champion basketballer, it’s offset by the gratitude that we have her football career to enjoy at all.
If the league had started in its original 2020 year, Phillips may never have played, and the league would not have the iconic figure leading the change in conversations around football.
The resonance of Phillips being the league’s best player aligned to the ways that she represents a generation of lost participants makes her the perfect icon of the league.
The resonance of Phillips speaking so openly about her parents being constantly chided for not having a male in the family to continue the footy family name spoke volumes over and above any market created slogan.
This is pointed at the rhymer
So were we to take that in a marketing sense to solve our original PR problem, around how we change the conversation of football, there are a lot of things we can learn about where football is at and what we lack.
Firstly, the range of Phillips merchandise, the personalised material, the framed best and fairest merchandise we take for granted with a Brownlow winner, are nowhere to be seen.
At a time when Phillips visibility is so high, it’s negligent to not offer purchasers of all ages the chance to support her values with their wallets.
One of the values of AFLW is that players are supported as much as teams, and there are no true villains, so Phillips merchandise would sell to fans of different teams in a way that is unique to AFLW.
Brownlow medal merchandise is only going to sell to supporters of that particular team, generally, and it would not feel right for a Collingwood supporter to display Dustin Martin merchandise in their pool room.
Phillips, especially through AFLW values, transcends that team loyalty, and that makes her a unique marketing commodity.
Secondly, Phillips represents authenticity, since even with her elevated status it is possible to go to an AFLW game and get a photo and an autograph with her post game.
What a lot of those who troll women’s footy don’t realise is that at its heart are a lot of things that they decry as lost to the men’s game are still represented in the women’s game.
The authenticity, the community football, the values they say their men’s games lack in an era of kiss cams and loud rock music are found in spades at an AFLW game.
So in essence you have a marketable, brilliant player with high visibility, high respect, and genuine authenticity, the best possible ambassador for the brand values AFLW flirts with.
Using Phillips as the league brand ambassador (and we have lamented in the blog before this hasn’t been done before) is the best possible step forward for the league, better than any concocted slogan or attempt to use a hashtag to sum up the season.
At a time where influencers and brand ambassadors have become a cliché and relatively inauthentic, Phillips representing the leagues values in its promotional material makes perfect sense in every way.
More than that though, it’s a restrictive practice to suggest Phillips represents women’s footy because for her she represents football in a way that is unique.
Phillips is simply a brilliant athlete and footballer, rendering gender to a sense redundant.
Changing those conversations, those gender norms, those conversations people have as sausages sizzle on summer days?
Making sure that girls picking up a footy in a backyard feel encouraged, empowered, given equal opportunity to kick the footy back to their parents?
Phillips in the overall marketing of the league, shoulder to shoulder with Dusty and Danger, is the perfect way to do it.
Haters be damned, it’s been well-earned.
The first step to normalizing our game, to unifying our game in a marketing sense, to marketing football as an overall package starts with Erin.
While we hope the Nina’s and Maddie’s of this world inspire future generations, this is something we can do for the present.
If the Tayla Harris kick becoming the logo of the league was the moment that conversations received to female footballers went front and center, the proactive use of Phillips as part of the history of the game should start to transcend the original problems we discussed at the start.
The use of Phillips as a vibrant part of the iconic imagery of football, tying her Grand Final emotional moment into the fabric of footy history is a unique opportunity.
To knit the images of Erin on the stretcher into the history of the game with Leos mark and Don’t Think, do…….
Because she’s now an icon of the game, the game of footy, the sport itself when it’s devoid of lettering….