COVID CORRESPONDENCE with Ben Alexander IV - Marketing and Forging our own Broadcasting Path - Green and Gold Rugby
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COVID CORRESPONDENCE with Ben Alexander IV – Marketing and Forging our own Broadcasting Path

COVID CORRESPONDENCE with Ben Alexander IV – Marketing and Forging our own Broadcasting Path

This is a continuing series based on a letter correspondence I had with 72-veteran Wallaby, and highest capped Brumbies player in history, Ben Alexander.

In our final section of this series, we discuss a topic high on the agenda of many rugby fans, around marketing and getting people to watch the game.

JP Smith and Taniela Tupou tell the Foxsports crew how it was done

JP Smith and Taniela Tupou tell the Foxsports crew how it was done

NW: Marketing has always been a major issue for rugby; competing with the likes of League, Soccer and AFL, not to mention many associated perceptions around the game, and who plays it. For me, there are two things we need to focus on: how the game is perceived and how people can watch it.

For casual fans there is a common association that rugby is more about who you’ve played for, which unfavourably adds to the perceptions that rugby is an “exclusive, private school” sport. This is probably reiterated by commentators, coaches and players often speaking about players making their way through a prestigious school to a prestigious club, to SR and the Wallabies. Why should a casual fan care? Instead, a retelling of the brand of rugby needs to happen.

BA: I’m no expert, but I’m a strong believer that “Good products sell themselves”. If the product is shit, people will see straight through any attempt to market it. Of course advertising and marketing campaigns can help, but I think all the focus should be on fixing the game as a spectacle, before we start to consider how to market it.

Fiji fans

How do we get folks back to games?

Once the competition and rules etc are sorted, then decent money needs to be spent to hire great storytelling talent, to tell the off field stories and capture “the hero’s journey” that many of the players are on. Fans want to believe in and to be proud of their role models, as they look up and attempt to emulate them.

However, if there was one marketing theme that I would focus on, it would be that Rugby truly is a game for people of all shapes and sizes. Regardless of all the Izzy Folau stuff last year, I believe that rugby was already the most inclusive game.

In what other sport could you get two body types like a Rory Arnold and a Les Leulua’ial’i-Makin working together in perfect unison? Like during a scrum or at a line out? One gangly 6-foot-8 creature and the other known as “the human bar fridge”.

Regularly these two would make a 2-man tackle to absolutely destroy any ball-carrier who dared to run at them. Any defence coach’s wet dream! Just ask Peter Ryan.

It’s how these different body shapes and backgrounds come together to impact how a team plays the game is what makes the game of Rugby unique, and truly special, and something that AFL and League will never have.

Rugby at the SCG Waratahs v Rebels 2019 (Credit Keith McInnes)

Is it time for rugby to go back to the future?

NW: Rugby also has the added benefit of being played internationally, on a scale much larger than either League or especially AFL has achieved. At my club for instance, we’ve got boys from New Zealand, England, Spain, Argentina, even the US!

Advertising needs to be clinical, targeted and cunning. We need to re-frame the narrative of the game and what it represents: the rivalries, the fact that no matter your size, rugby has a place for you. Add to that, we need to especially target women. The Womens 7s, the Wallaroos and the Super W has shown there is a lot of potential in the women’s game, and to grow the Wallaroos as a brand.

Then, we need to get people to watch it.

I think most agree that we need to part ways with Fox. It was a relationship that has worked a lot in the professional era, but we have to admit that now it is a relationship that isn’t working, and they have a product that is less and less in touch with the current media landscape.

Getting bums on seats is important, no matter where those bums are. Andrew Robertson wrote a fantastic article comparing pricing of Fox to streaming platforms, and while you have to fork out at least $25 for Foxtel, streaming subscriptions like Stan or Netflix often barely pass the $10 mark.

Rugby needs to move with the times and with the audience, and a streaming service like Optus (which has 800K subscribers compared to Fox’s Kayo Sports and Foxtel Now, that has 700K between them) is doing that.

Get those freeloaders out of there and get in on Foxsports ya mug...

Is it time to move with the times and embrace streaming?

BA: I’d go further. Foxtel’s overpriced and outdated model with a lot of content that doesn’t interest you was in deep trouble before Coronavirus. To sign a long-term deal with Foxtel is not too dissimilar to having “tea and scones in the 1st class cabin of the Titanic.”

I’ve always been a massive NBA fan, after growing up in the Basketball mad USA, watching Michael Jordan tear apart my beloved Seattle Supersonics. During the 2013 British and Irish Lions series, I will never forget watching the NBA finals between LeBron James’s Miami Heat, and the San Antonio Spurs on the team bus, while we went to and from training. All on my smartphone.

I paid a monthly subscription fee directly to the NBA for all the NBA content I could gobble up, largely removing the middleman (although I’m sure Apple/Google gets a small cut of that fee).

I’ll never forget watching Ray Allen’s epic 3 pointer with seconds to go in Game 6, to force a game 7. Watching NBA history, while attempting to be a part of some of our own. Sporting history I would’ve missed, if it wasn’t for streaming.

While I’m not totally across the costs involved to set something like this up, could Australian Rugby start it’s own streaming service, maintaining the bulk of the profits, and have Rugby fans from all around the world pay a monthly subscription to get all the great Aussie rugby content? There’s an absolute shitload of highlights just waiting in the archives!

NW: Whether rugby can go it alone and has the demand for its own service right now is difficult to say, but it is a product that could potentially reach more people if it gets on the front foot and goes where the audience is going.

Rugby.com.au has done similar things in the past with their Rugby Xplorer app which I think has great potential, especially off the back of being a great platform to watch last year’s NRC. Rugby can survive if it moves with the times, and we know the future is not Fox. They’ve given no indication they can adapt their product.

Lachlan Swinton leaps in defense Sydney v NSW Country NRC 2019 (Credit Peter Tremain)

The NSW Derby during last year’s NRC

If you’d like to read more of what we discussed, you can check out our full letter conversation here. What options do you think could be brought to the table?

  • RedAnt

    Thanks, Nick (and Ben). Some good, thoughtful stuff.

  • Reds Revival

    You’re talking about my two passions – rugby and marketing (rowing is the other one, but that’s a different website entirely).

    I agree that half the problem of Rugby’s image is the perception that it is elitist. If you are going to do the player profiles, it needs to be about the guys (and girls) who never went to a private school, but still feel right at home in a rugby team. Marketing is often about what people aspire to. Whether that’s a nice car, branded sports clothing, or success in sport. Rugby needs to be seen as the vehicle that can help people reach their dream. The story of how The Beast first started in Rugby at the Sharks perfectly sums up how Rugby in Australia should pitch itself. He had one pair of boots that were falling apart, and would walk to training each day, but it made him the worldwide name that he is today. Rugby can sell that dream in this country too.

  • Huw Tindall

    Excellent series Nick. MVP on the GAGR site without a doubt!

    One of the things that disturbed me most about the recent RA cuts was the fact they are cutting so much of the journo/marketing department from the look of things. I know cuts were necessary for survival but they’ve gone deep in an area where Rugby needs the most help. Hopefully they do market the sh”t out of the next iteration. The last great ad was the original ARC intro “you don’t know me, yet” and before that “what do you want to be, a Walla-Wallaby”.

    First things first though, get a comp people want to watch, which is not the current Super comp. That of course is another story altogether.

    • Nicholas Wasiliev

      Glad you’ve enjoyed the series mate.

      And I agree entirely on your second point. I was lucky enough to chat with both Payto and Beth Newman and work with them a tiny bit before they both left rugby.com.au, and they both had a passion for keeping their coverage independent and without bias. The same cannot be said for most of the other rugby coverage in this country. It is a massive loss and I really hope that they keep the platform going as their lack of bias was option incredibly valuable for getting perspectives not tainted by personal anecdotes.

      Ditto in regards to marketing. The frustrating thing for me is there is so much for the marketing team to work with! So much history, so many perspectives. They need to think outside the box in new ways to tell that rugby story.

      I’m curious to see how these upcoming domestic tournaments go. I’ve thought, if this proves a success, maybe we follow the Europeans and have our own domestic comps, with a Heineken style competition afterwards with the respective finalists of each competition? Who knows?

  • Brumby Jack

    Very insightful and plenty to think about.

    Do you think World Rugby developing and producing their own broadcast network or streaming service that covers all the major competitions (similar to NFL & NBA), and sell it off broadcaster as a complete package. Surely a rugby broadcast that has 6 Nations, Rugby Championship and the top club comps would be a tantalising prospect, and rugby wouldn’t be so beholden to broadcast deals.

    Not sure if we could do it here on national scale but it would be cool to see a broadcast starting with Schoolboy rugby, followed by club footy (QPR or Shute Sheild), followed by a National Comp (whatever form that may take). That’s a lot of rugby to watch over a weekend.

    • Nicholas Wasiliev

      It’s certainly an interesting idea. It would need the support of World Rugby and all the national unions though, and many, such as folks in England and France, who benefit from expensive TV deals, may question it. Rugby does better when it goes together, so maybe something like that is a way forward?

      Streaming is increasingly being seen to me as a valuable method of content consumption, and it has proven success with the EPL here in Australia for example. As mentioned in the article, Benny Alexander thinks our own streaming service is a good way forward, and I for one would be willing to fork out 10-15 bucks a month to pay for it. The question for me is, would there be enough demand to do that yet? Not against it at all, but could it work?

      If I had the reigns, I’d be trying to lock in a deal with Optus to see how many folks would actually be keen to watch rugby via a streaming service. Fox’s model is simply too expensive and it is reflective that people don’t see the value in it.

  • ATrain

    A lot is made of the private school thing. I struggle with some of the criticism they cop. I did not go to a private school, I met a lot of mates who did through rugby, and you can’t blame them that their parents decided to prioritise a particular sort of education and had the money for it. Also I worked at one of the private schools in Brisbane, one that offered community scholarships and sporting scholarships. There were young men in both programmes who, under the current system, would not have got exposed to rugby anyway else. They would have most likely played rugby league and some of them, who have gone on to since be Wallabies or represent other Island nations, probably would have carved out pretty decent careers in the NRL. I, as an outsider who went to a school in a regional area, never felt left out because I didn’t go to the right school. Because of my exposure to rugby I got at least two job offers that I suspect I wouldn’t have even been aware of because a mate, who went to a private school, new someone who worked at the firm and new that I was qualified. There were times when I thought I might not have made teams because I wasn’t in the right clique but, when I look back on it, it was more likely that the other bloke was just better.

    Where I think we have faded away a bit is the initial exposure for those outliers. I know in the country area I grew up in, every school in our area, which was overwhelmingly a league area, entered into the Waratah Shield, a state wide comp for all country independent/private and state schools. We generally made it to the second round and no further but that was at least two games of 15s that we wouldn’t have had. The local rugby club also ran a round robin comp for the 4 local high schools, 3 public and one catholic. So six games plus the two from Waratah Shield. You aren’t going to get the died in the wool leaguies to turn but the tall gangly kids and the bar fridges who don’t really fit the league mold – well they feel like the ugly ducklings who realise they’re really swans… very funny looking swans.

    • disqus_NMX

      “Also I worked at one of the private schools in Brisbane, one that offered community scholarships and sporting scholarships. There were young men in both programmes who, under the current system, would not have got exposed to rugby anyway else” – and that, is exactly the problem, Rugby has shown very little interest in public schools, so there is no “anyway else” except private schools, or the crumbs that private schools deem to throw out. And that alienates the entire majority swathe of kids that don’t either have rich parents, or enough skills to get a scholarship. And those kids grow up to not be fans of rugby, funnily enough. And thus, rugby is dying. And then you have people like you who are like “hey, there’s no problem, I got a job through who I knew, not what I knew, q.e.d.” without realising that your entire evidence is actually contradictory to your argument.

      • ATrain

        Well that wasn’t what I was trying to say.

        I’ll try again. This is a summary of what I was trying to communicate.

        The private school system – which as far as I understand does not receive any funding from RA – does a lot to develop players and uses the resources provided by their fee paying students and their own fund raising to run their programmes.

        While I didn’t come from a GPS school background I was made welcome by all those who did – without exception. I was, as far as I can tell, judged on my ability as a player and not the fact that I came from a small country town and no-one had ever heard of my school. And to clarify, people at the club made me aware of the jobs, I had to apply, go through the interview process and was employed on my qualifications (as a suitable employee not a rugby player). There was one situation where a coach lined up an interview so that I could move to Brisbane but I found another job on my own. Given that neither that coach nor I went to a GPS school that is probably irrelevant. There was another where a local business that supported the club needed someone with my skill set (didn’t take that one either because I didn’t like the sound of the job).

        My main point was that when I started playing there was a competition for non GPS schools and I don’t think there is anymore – if it does still exist it doesn’t seem to be very strong. It was a good thing and it would be great if they could bring it back. The GPS System though didn’t take it away. Once I was exposed to rugby I was welcomed at all the clubs I played at by almost all people and didn’t notice any difference in how I was treated because of my background.

        • Who?

          Rugby people in GPS schools are generally pretty good people. Not entirely – some are snobbish elitists who look down their noses at anyone not in their schools – but for the most part, they’re like everyone else. Good Aussies. The schools, though….
          .
          The schools do NOT have Rugby’s interests at heart. Why should they? The only reason they play Rugby rather than other sports is differentiation and elitism. They go raid talent from clubs and schools at representative carnivals (I’ve seen kids given scholarships at U12’s – both Rugby and League), and when they present themselves as conduits to the Wallabies, it’s off the back of those raids and the massive amount of physical training they drill through their kids. It’s not that the coaching level’s any better than anywhere else, it’s purely that they have more access to the kids. And if you’re paying $$,$$$ p.a. in school fees, you’re going to get everything out of the experience, too. You don’t have your kids play in the local club cricket comp, they play for the school. They get their music lessons at school. They do their drama at school. They play Rugby at school. So the schools get all the access they could want from the kids.
          .
          I’d hate to send my kids to one of those schools. Especially given the scholarship programs. How would it feel to know that you’re effectively paying for some other kid’s education? How does the First XV’s success benefit your kid’s future prospects when they’re not involved with it? And worse, how do those kids who play First XV in Year 10 feel when, in Year 11 and 12, the school continues to draft in players on scholarship from elsewhere? Then you’re paying for someone else to come in and kick your kid out of his comfort zone, to separate him from his school mates and something that’s been an integral part of his life for years. That’s got to be rough – paying for someone else’s kid to push your kid out of the team…
          .
          I have friends with kids in those schools. In Grade 10, they’re exhausted and sick of Rugby. And these are kids who come from Rugby families, mad families. Families who are only sending their kids to these schools for Rugby! Seriously, would you put your kids through a $$,$$$ p.a. school, knowing the kids are going to be tradies (i.e. they’re not going to use the school tie to get into uni or run companies), just doing it for Rugby, if you weren’t Rugby mad? These are good people – I consider them friends and hold them in very high regard. So for kids who live and breathe rugby to be exhausted by the program, a program which my friends (who all coach outside the school) believe is of arguably poorer quality than their kids received in their club (only being of value due to quantity), it doesn’t reflect well on the schools.
          .
          I think it’s extraordinarily short sighted of RA and the administration of the game to rely on these schools to develop players. Because their development of players is only done for their own purposes. I’m not complaining about that. It frustrates me, because they impede access to players developed by clubs, and cause endless issues for clubs, but I completely understand why they do what they do, and why parents buy in.
          But it will be similarly unintelligent for RA and others to complain when – and I deliberately say when – they axe Rugby, on the basis that it no longer benefits their schools and enrolments to play Rugby. Schools have worked for their own benefit for years, that will never change. The question is how long their benefit and Rugby’s benefit will remain aligned.
          .
          There has been competitions for schools, but I think they’re largely mothballed now. I’ve seen school district comps in the last decade, which are successful, but are (as noted) really just an opportunity for the GPS schools to poach kids who’ve paid literally thousands of dollars to travel long distances and to play a few games.
          .
          I’d love to see schools playing Rugby, but I believe the reality of our future is clubs. As you’ve said, clubs are (for the most part) incredibly welcoming, have no concern about where you live or what you do, and provide opportunities to all. It’s the equal access opportunity for all players, and we should be championing them. Involvement in schools should be with programs similar to Auskick (Rookies 2 Reds), aimed at funnelling kids into local clubs.

        • ATrain

          Thanks Who? I would certainly agree with some of what you said.

          My main overall point is – more needs to be done outside GPS so, in many ways, we are coming to the same end point, I just don’t agree to the same degree that GPS is causing the issue.

          Para 1 – yes…but in my experience, if those snobbish ones continue through to senior clubs they don’t tend to progress.

          Para 2/3 – I don’t fully agree here. I think there are many people involved who do have the games interests at heart. I also think there are people who are prepared to pay another kids fees – particularly if that kid has a talent. I know some blokes in country cricket and country rugby who saw talented kids and, on the quiet, gave the club bats or paid for coaching clinics etc so that talent was progressed – for some in the GPS system this is the motivation. The kids were, for the most part, fairly welcoming of the scholarship kids (IMO), there is real genuine support for seeing the 1sts win and everyone shares in that – just as a second grade player supports the 1st grade in club and wants them to do well. Same as if a good rep player comes to town and wants to play really. For others, yes it is all about prestige. I wouldn’t want my kid to make the firsts if there was a better player just because that player came in Year 11 & 12 – I would rather just want my kid to be the best he could be.

          I also agree that they do flog the sh*t out of them with training and many don’t progress. They might even make schoolboys but aren’t interested anymore and don’t progress to seniors. I also noticed that a lot of the kids in the 1sts don’t continue playing but a lot of the kids in 6s and 7s and even 8s come through and play in seniors to a very high level.

          I personally found the level of coaching to be pretty good where I was. But the level of commitment required (up to 12 sessions a week) was over done. So yes I agree.

          Para 4 – Yes. I agree. That is the main point I am trying to make. Do more outside the established areas, like RA and Raelene Castle did with the Aboriginal 7s knockouts and the development of those players. More of that please, more often and in more areas.

          But I don’t agree, not fully anyway, with your point about those kids then being poached. I think it is a bit like the UK/France clubs taking our senior players. There is a limit to how many players they will take through (even more so in the schools). There is no appetite (at least IMO) for a full 1st XV made up of scholarship players. They will just take the best ones. If there are even more coming through they will still only take the best ones. Another thing is, at the school where I went to, there were probably 3 times as many kids taken on academic scholarships as were taken on sport and some of the kids on community scholarship – a majority of them, weren’t particularly good at sport – but they were from struggling families in the nearby area and I thought that was a good thing. I think (for many but not all) it is the same motivation. It is about given children a hand up, sometimes based on a particular skill they have that can be nurtured at these places and others just because they are doing it very tough.

          Final Para. Yes. There is a failing to get the schools and clubs programmes to work together. Yes clubs do The clubs at younger ages where I was involved have 10 plus teams in U8s and that continues to U10s. The numbers then start to drop off. At U12s its 2 -3 teams (15s though not 10 but still down) and by 14s they can be struggling to get a team. And that is where they schools start to dominate, in some cases preventing kids from playing in their club team and focusing only on school. But, can some creativity be applied to the structure so that kids can do both. They only play for a term so can club footy work around that somehow? (yes why should club change I know and that is a good point). I just think that there needs to be a way to grow the game outside traditional areas while still maintaining, what I see are some real benefits of the existing system. It might be, as you say, that the schools jack it in soon but I think that would have some negatives.

  • Wonky Donkey

    I was litterally thinking about an RA stream service yeaterday and cutting out the middle man. Surely its doable. Rugby.com.au manages to stream online. Get some investors on board, better cams, develop an app and new exciting ways to film the game like rugby analysis. Maybe some games free and some under subscription
    Sign me up

    • disqus_NMX

      Yep, and if you really want to get the masses on board, it needs to be like Spotify, where there is a free version with ads, and a premium paid version without ads. But don’t hold back the content from the free version, the content is the promotion in itself.

  • Who?

    Thanks Nick (and Ben), it’d be great to see more of this sort of stuff. Well worth the read, great to see some in depth thinking about the game.
    .
    On streaming, the other option is to onsell the product to RugbyPass… Who already do what you discussed. Or ESPN. Though RA would be lumped with the production costs with either option. Selling as a standalone streaming service isn’t as inviting, as you’d only get local (i.e. RA-owned) games, whereas with RugbyPass (or ESPN) you have an aggregation of games from all over the world.

  • RugbyM

    An important element I think is getting kids interested in rugby from a young age. I recall back in primary school we did AusKick for a school sport and we all learnt what AFL was and how to kick and pass and all that. And while I’ve never been able to put myself through watching a whole professional match, I still recall the primary school lessons we had about it. We did basketball, we did netball, we did badminton (!), we did tennis, we did touch footy, but that was as close as we got to rugby. I only got into rugby because dad decided one day to take us to a super rugby match way back when. I’d never really heard of it before. I would have loved to have played rugby growing up, but could find absolutely no information about girl’s/women’s local club sports other than netball (which I can’t stand) or soccer (where I ended up). that needs to change too

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@Nick_Wasiliev

Die-hard Brumbies/Country Eagles fan now based in Sydney. Author, anthropologist, musician, second rower. Still trying to make sense of the 21st century. Dropped a debut novel last year...

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