Sometimes in marketing there is nothing you can do to turn opinion around – all that’s left is blind faith, hope, optimism, maybe even prayers for a miracle, because damned if you can think of a way to turn things around professionally or with any kind of experties.
Sure, you can SAY you are on the case, that we’re turning public opinion around, that we totally understand our consumers, but the game is up….
Negativity, public opinion? Can you spin your way out it? Is there a card at the bottom of the deck to play? Sometimes you just have to say no, this one is out of our hands.
AFLW more or less faced this reality on Grand Final day: the season has had a mix of negatives and positives, but it hadn’t capitalised on its end of season 1 goodwill, and by the end of the difficult second season, was unsure of itself and where it wanted to go, even what its strategic goals were.
After all, on a list on the AFLM website of AFL Movers and Shakers, they mentioned Nicole Livingstone hadn’t even decided (or had decided for her) what her role and objectives were. If they didn’t know how would anyone else…
What is the first thing people think of when they think of season 2? The memo? The players? The inertia? The great games?
Sam Lanes coat?
The season didn’t bristle with the self-confidence of a league that belonged, that much is sure. A league that by the end of the first season genuinely felt revolutionary, even if some of the victories were pyrrhic, retreated and blinked in season 2, and late in the season, it was too late to call the season a genuine triumph.
The AFLW Grand Final wasn’t as a singular event going to be means to salvage the season, from a PR perspective, and as the rain tumbled all around IKON Park with an ill gathered darkness, the women from the Western Bulldogs and the Brisbane Lions played out a physical, brilliant battle for the Premiership amidst the backdrop of an uncertain future for the league.
It’s fair to say AFLW Season 2 was a strange beast – those who were rusted on, those with the most invested, truly were the last to surrender. The Grand Final and it’s epic toughness was something of a reward. In spite of everything, in spite of all the fight and struggle just to have the game taken seriously, there we were.
Refusing to surrender, determined to enjoy this strange beautiful game to the end, in the face of pure negativity.
Determined to enjoy the last moments of Sam Lane and Whispering Peta Searle, the last strange obsessive research of Jason Bennett, or whatever it was Nudge actually did. To enjoy Lochland and Lutkins, Woosha and Kearney, “Sabina” and Bruton. The determination to shut out the noise was palpable, the excitement very real from the devoted.
Of course, this being AFLW Season 2, it was too late to truly save the season of negativity and slumber with even an epic Grand Final – never mind one where the rain meant Missy Higgins couldn’t perform pre game and made a sole appearance chatting to Nudge at half time.
Never mind one where the women had to run down a decrepit, barely fit for purpose IKON park race with water washing over wires, and a random mop just appearing in the way. Not while an empty Etihad Stadium with roof and better facilities lay dormant.
Never mind one where Channel 7 couldn’t get the graphics working for the game, where the website had no Champion Data stats and the wrong score for most of the first half. Never mind one where the microphone failed, and Nat Edwards was left silent in the post game presentations.
No wonder most of the websites ran with the notion of a Grand Final shambles, rather than any kind of positive story – to the mainstream, it summed it all up…
From a marketing perspective, the frustration that the AFLW Grand Final piled disaster on disaster. Grand Final week could have been a good week to put out whatever the AFLW equivalent of a crisis management plan was.
Was there a way to disseminate positive stories? Favors to pull in? Was there something to give the fans? Bells and whistles left to try?
In truth, from a marketing point of view, AFLW (and the labyrinthine no one take responsibility for anything structure of AFLM) have buckled under TV pressure to leave AFLW until after the Australian Open (Channel 7 spacing out content is the simple reason why AFLW can’t dare impinge on the tennis) without thinking the consequences, leaving the AFLW Grand Final to battle for attention with Round 1 of AFLM and the Grand Prix.
Even if the mainstream media is focused on other things, AFLW didn’t do much to create fan engagement, paralyzed by inertia. There was no communication from HQ, no attempt to try something different, no attempt at viral marketing or a clip for the players.
It came and went from a marketing and PR point of view, the game already moved on from by the AFLMHQ as soon as St Kilda and Brisbane started. If it’s tough to gain mainstream media acceptance, is there a way to promote outside the mainstream? Will anything be learned for next time, to make things feel special for those who care? Or do they think they genuinely tried, that in their minds the day was special?
Were the images of women players celebrating enough to create social capital in marketing brochures next year? It’s hard to work out, but in the moment, it doesn’t feel enough…
There are lots of little marketing things that can be done to make a Grand Final stand out, even in the maelstrom of a Round 1 AFLM media blitz. A WEG poster released would be one example, not the lipsticked Crow from season 1 by the way.
Nicole Livingstone didn’t tweet about the Grand Final on her Twitter account all week, no one from the AFL seemed to bother to officially talk the game up. It came and went with the fanfare of a normal game, aside from the Premiership rings (on which more below).
Is it possible to do an On the Couch with Daisy and Erin in the week to the Grand Final? To create something special out of nothing, from the fans? Is there a hashtag or way to promote on social media? A special look to the website? Mini promo videos?
At a time where there is terror of young fans drifting away, the opportunity to create two narrative based videos where young fans (lets say the “Sabina” kid again) met their heroes and got to experience Grand Final week with the teams was missed. What about the kid who on the podium praised Ellie Blackburn? Again, simple marketing…
The greatest thing AFLW missed this season was this league, especially given the myriad of challenges it faces, is that this is essentially a partnership, a league that needs to take the fans along with it, build support and organic roots in the community. Have they done that this season? Not for a second…
The Grand Final was an opportunity to lay down a marker for the future, showcase something new, show how the sports marketing mix is going to work from here. If there was time for a new slogan, a new attitude here it was…
Instead, the Grand Final confirmed something already known: the women deserve better. As the confetti flew across IKON park, there was a brief sense of satisfaction that we had got through it all, somehow in one piece, as fans. A league shouldn’t make you feel relief that you had survived, if it’s truly engaged with its fans.
On the whole, the women of AFLW deserved better, deserved to have it showcased from a marketing point of view how and why football should be a pre-eminent choice for young girls making sports choices.
Instead, the league was showcased as a place where, even in Premiership glory, you don’t really belong….not yet anyway…womens football, those who played it and built it, are being pushed aside. There may yet be no “womens football” but whatever the AFL version is….pinkwashed and pretty…
Where AFLW goes from here, no one knows. We’ll talk more about the future of AFLW in the final AFLW blog post for the year, but the Grand Final showed the flaws of the competition. A fantastic football games breaks out amidst chaos, a lack of faith, amidst missed marketing and promotional opportunities. Those who are rusted on may feel angst, but they’ll still be there, cheering on our inspirational heroes.
Anyone who has worked on sports marketing would be conscious of external motivators, and one of the most powerful motivators is the feeling of belonging. It permeated throughout season 1 that this was a league you could belong to as a female sports fan, or a league you could play in, and that has been severed in season 2. Not fatally, but do you feel at the end of this season, as a stakeholder that they truly valued you?
That feeling can be rebuilt, but there’s a lot of hard work ahead.
The rest is a scary “blank piece of paper”, but more on that next time…
Hold on for tomorrow
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one thing that happened this week – as everyone knows, when it comes to AFLW, the last thing anyone wants to do is read the comments.
Every comment descends into the same old fight, particularly under newspaper articles. Some start with the truly horrendous “I have nothing against womens football but” and others are just outright hatred and vitriol, unchecked, there for everyone to see.
Sometimes the originators of that are people like Kane Cornes, fresh from cashing his pay cheque for hosting Womens Footy, posting about the footy rings given to the womens Premiership players, allegedly “tongue in cheek”. Others simply decide to showcase their dis-interest for the sport in the most dismissive way possible. No womens football story simply exists, it always has comments, always has a backlash…
For instance, the first comment under a story of Kaitlyn Ashmore talking about playing football in inspiration for her Pa was a male fan saying “Yawn, she’s not a star” and it descended from there, with an unchecked male troll called “Rusty” who posts on a lot of womens football articles given free rein to set more comments you would imagine.
Similarly, after Katie Brennan took her challenge from her suspension to the Humans Rights commission, the Herald Sun was able to publish every single comment from the 50/50 writers who believe everything is PC gone mad.
That’s not to fall into the trap that all is social media is inherently bad of course, there is a counterbalance that has created a rebellious, and as just untapped, AFLW community that shares many joys and fights the good fight as best we can.
Journalists will often shift the blame onto social media for their own ineptitude, as if social media drips entirely with poison. It’s more nuanced than that, but the worst is crippling and infuriating, bullying and vicious.
The worst however of social media is a short story involving Sarah Perkins. In AFLW Perkins if a Premiership player from the Adelaide Crows, with an amazing story to tell.
For the VFLW season, Perkins signed up to join Hawthorn to play in the VFLW season, and Hawthorns Facebook page posted a simple splash banner that said “Welcome to Hawthorn Sarah Perkins”
You may be able to tell where this is going. There was a torrent of ugly comments, ranging on everything from Perkins looks and weight, to quality as a person, to qualities as a person, right through to inevitable denigration of womens football in the worst possible ways.
This isn’t a Hawthorn story as such – the club did entirely the right thing, blocking as best they can and posting a warning to anyone who posted offensive comments, and if there was a grim irony that the “family club” should be at the centre of its own fans and trolls attacking a new player in such a way, the clubs response was appropriate, as the volume of comments cascaded down.
In truth, the story is purely illustrative, that for many people the womens game is something to rail against: they call it a social project, a PC project, say things with implications, criticise looks and post dismissive comments…
The great ideal the league can have to combat this next season is to fight for the league, promote the hell out of the football, and showcase the best of the league. Instead, it seems as though everything is going to be pinkwashed, and “womens” footy is on the way.
The leagues lack of social confidence has emboldened the trolls and the critics, and until the marketing is self-confident and proud of the sport, more comments will continue to roll in…