Here comes the future and you can’t run from it…

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I’m just looking for a faith, waiting to be followed…

At various points in 2017 it’s been a ridiculously blissful time to be a female sports fan – it’s been possible to actually watch women play games of actual consequence on television across a multitude of sports without being patronised to, to sit huddled around a desk emotively waiting to find out if your football club has been granted an AFLW licence (spoiler: they did), to retweet clips of girls meeting Alanna Kennedy or Sam Kerr of the Matildas with genuine excitement, to talk with other female fans about female sports. Gasp, there’s even been female commentary on the cricket on Triple M (TRIPLE M!), Erin Phillips on the Footy Show (we’ve covered the cynical side of that enough, lets for now call it progress) and sometimes they let the AFLW players sit at the desk on AFL 360! I mean, only sometimes, but still, baby steps…

In case you are still one of those posting snide comments on Facebook about female athletes looks, thinking a sport that promotes equality is somehow some sort of social engineering to be terrified of, or only allows ladies to attend events where make up bags are given out and hunky footballers are present (plus free wine!), well, it feels like your time is up. Womens sport is now a part of the landscape, bolder, vibrant and providing role models and stories. The future is here, there’s no running from it. Challenging Channel 9s “Malibu Stacy” commentary team? Shaking up Footy Shows? Demanding seats on football panels? The revolution is finally here, and it feels powerful, even as years of being a female sports fan mean you never can truly believe it without waiting for something bad to happen to spoil it all…

That of course is not to say that there isn’t battles yet to be won, of which this blog post will merely pick at a couple of issues. There are other issues: why women’s sports for instance still continue to require a reassuring male lead commentator for the most part for instance. Examine most female sports, and you’ll find a male lead commentator. Brenton Speed got the Matilda’s games, Jason Bennett the AFLW games, random people on the WNBL – once we get to the stage that we’re comfortable in sports to let women commentate womens sports without wanting a pat on the back for it, we’ll have won another battle. We haven’t progressed beyond Steve Robilliard or Luke Darcy doing the netball. However, I digress, back to the marketing angle…

If you need more evidence of a shift in marketing priorities, consider this: the end of the monoculture has diversified the way people consume and watch sport. A girl with an IPAD and streaming is just as valuable a viewer as the male head of the household controlling the living room TV. It’s now perfectly fine for the girl with the IPAD to idolise a female sports star. It’s not hard to see where this is going. From a PR perspective, the trends are rolling in every single day, the marketing research is there. It’s on desks, it in graphs, it’s in pie charts and in buzzwords. “Female friendly”, “the female sports generation”, “the idolisation factor” – on and on, everyone can see where it’s going, even those who are fighting it in 50/50 columns…

You want to sell active wear or sports gear? There’s suddenly female consumers who want to play the games. You want to sell something that’s real and authentic? Have you heard female sports stars speak about their journey? Doesn’t get any more real than that….after all, it wasn’t THAT long ago that the best a female athlete could aspire to was a “shoot” in FHM or Inside Sport or a cameo in a Nutri Grain ad, and now the future seems so bright. Sex isn’t selling now, authenticity is. It’s so obvious, it almost doesn’t need typing…

Proactively thinking women’s sports don’t need to rely on the monoculture of traditional commercial TV of course, they can tell their own stories through social media, through streaming video, through podcasts and Facebook streams. One of the things we will note is that there’s so much of the AFLW promotion stuck in the hands of the establishment male AFL, who still can’t build decent club websites, that is stuck in thinking everything has to be on commercial TV or endorsed by Brian Taylor…

So if everyone in marketing, public relations, sports offices and sports HQ is aware of this paradigm shift to where the money is in promoting and supporting female sports, why isn’t it being trusted? It’s an interesting question, part of a natural public relations reluctance to invest in something new – it still feels (and this also comes from sports HQ by the way, especially the AFL) likes women’s sports is some sort of fad to people who matter. They know the figures, but they don’t trust the figures. Sure, the charts SHOW growth, but if you want a womens footballer in an ad, best to put Dustin Martin in there too, cover all bases.

No wonder much of the marketing for AFLW is done by the players themselves at a grass-roots level, on social media. Just as a thought – AFLW version of the Cleveland Cavaliers “Road Trip” podcast. It’ll storm it. Digress. The AFL is a body that promotes its marketing ability, and it does have a ruthless charm (or charmlessness in the Demetriou era) but it’s still tied into sponsorship deals, content saved for Channel 7, partnerships, fitful press releases turned into website content.

If ever anything we created for out of the box thinking when it comes to marketing, especially with a young fanbase of aspirational girls, it would have been AFLW. Where’s the exclusive content, where’s the streaming (the AFL U18s State Of Origin game wasn’t even available to stream), where’s the promotion beyond “look, women!” – it’s the next step in the process, taking your audience with you beyond the norm. And on the eve of AFLW season 2, it’s not happening…

There will be a point where marketing catches up to reality, but it’s creating a frustrating lag. The AFL still doesn’t quite trust or understand what they have, and are still at the “look! women! Look what we’re doing!” starting blocks. It’s tough to explain these two worlds: that they know women’s sports are the future, but they don’t trust it’s the future yet….to switch sports for a moment, how Sam Kerr hasn’t walked out with a major summer advertising campaign post the China series of games (save a small cameo on a Rebel Sports ad) is all part of this.

It’s why James Sutherland in cricket still patronizes and hums and haws about booking more women’s test matches with vagaries about slow run rates. They don’t trust it yet…not yet…they SAY they trust it, but in reality, it’s still “wait and see” like all these new female sports fans are fickle and will go back to doing whatever it is marketers think women do next year (worrying about Taylor Swift if you wanted to know what they think we do). Rather than rolling out their athletes for immersive activities they hold them back in press conferences that don’t engage any younger viewer at all. The best marketing I’ve seen all year was the Matildas walking around the ground post the China game engaging with fans, and hugging them and giving them selfies. You don’t think THAT resonates?

And yet again, the thinking, the marketing, the PR, the press releases, they are done within the AFL the same way it’s always been done. Why is the AFL spending so much time promoting their fuzzy rule, vague AFLX game with a vague fuzzy hope that one day Richmond might play the New York Blues in 2050 on a specially built rectangle? Why did the AFL push so much of its marketing budget to market International Rules? It’s familiar, it’s easy. Look everyone, Nat Fyfe! Marketing an AFLW State Of Origin game or a documentary as good as Heroes? That’s a bit harder, and the AFL simply didn’t bother. It doesn’t make sense, since the diversification of sports viewership means the AFL treating its shiniest most successful new toy as some sort of curtain raiser to a made up game on badly drawn rectangles is strange. And yes, from a PR point of view, be very clear, the priority for AFL is AFLX….it’s not even close…

After all, to re-iterate something we talked about before, a certain PR firm didn’t receive a single piece of promotional material for the AFLW State Of Origin game, but if you want all in on AFLX, you can get a T-shirt and a fridge magnet and call at any time to get in on the “fun”. In you are looking for a battle yet to be one, it’s convincing AFLHQ that the women’s game isn’t playing secondary fiddle to this years shiny new toy. It’s convincing advertisers that yes, putting Katie Brennan in a national ad campaign is going to work, hell, crazy thought, you can even put her in the ad on her own! Crazy! It’s convincing a PR firm that people will come out on a Tuesday night to hear a sportswoman talk about her story without a male sports star booked on the bill “just in case”.

There’s no question AFLW is a fantastic thing – to repeat something from before, people have no idea how good and special seeing this league was and is. No one should doubt that seeing women being just genuinely brilliant at sports (note: brilliant, not attractive, just genuinely brilliant – let’s make a big distinction) is inspiring. And the battle to be won is to have it trusted that this isn’t some of sort of summer mirage, a one hit wonder. That more people will watch it and continue to watch it and it isn’t a fad. Trusting the sport to be, well, a sport, with the rivalries, hatreds, criticisms of poor form and big game feel is still an ongoing evolution for Gil and the male leadership of the AFL. Socially conscious but not marketing savvy or conscious yet. That’s 2018s AFLW battle – not for acceptance, that’s already been won. It’s for respectability as its own entity….

To which…

Once again, the old men on the bench hum

It was announced this week that AFLW was being used as a trial/guinea pig/stage for greater public acceptance of a rule change (depending on your level of cynicism) to come to the mens game. That rule of course, last-disposal out-of-bounds, has been on the agenda of the AFL since last years increase of deliberate out-of-bounds. Kick the ball forward 60m with a hack kick? Deliberate! The report that this was being tried in the AFLW stated it clearly: it gives the decision-makers another body of evidence to consider. That evidence, of course, is for the mens game. So there you go women’s game, we’re watching…

And it felt…wrong somehow. It felt like the women’s game was still in the novelty stage, still in the “pre season giggle” stage. Instead of being allowed to develop its own pace, style and adaptations, it was condemned to trialling rules for the men. It felt oddly like when Channel 10 put Kelli Underwood on trial like a summer test, rather than integrating her as part of the team. Part of the problem? The NAB Cup, the JLT community series, the Wizard Cup…all the novelty pre season competitions have been used in recent years to trial rule changes. You know, the not so serious stuff. Instead now, it’s the womens game that has been lumped with the trials. Get the reason for the discomfort? It’s hard not take it as an insult, no matter how it is spun.

The other part of the problem is the league on field is still finding its own identity. Low scoring? Congestion? It’s a new competition, it’ll find its way. To thrust a rule change on the new league rather than let it work through its issues shows again they don’t trust what they have. Now, forced new rules to artificially promote the “excitement” of the game are not exclusive products of the women’s game, but it was sufficient to cause some discomfort. It ties into the James Sutherland “womens tests are too slow” reasoning. It’s either a trial and novelty experiment for the mens game, or an artificial attempt to increase excitement. And it felt deflating…

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