The relevance ladder.Bulldogs bite back
When big AFL clubs are successful they appear even bigger again. When those clubs are not winning they somehow still seem to appear almost as big and interesting.
When small clubs are winning they become interesting. When they start losing they are prone to become invisible. When the team drops, the club falls off the cliff.
The Western Bulldogs have become invisible. St Kilda is fading. This is in part cyclical – they have stopped winning and they have become less relevant – which is why they have agitated successfully for those structural inequities to be addressed at a meeting on Wednesday of club presidents.
The presidents are expected to agree to a raft of measures that will improve equalisation funding arrangements for the poorer clubs.
The invisibility occurs because suddenly no one wants to watch them any more and they are hidden away in graveyard slots on pay TV. The invisibility also occurs when they cease contributing to the football conversation, to the conversation about them, about others, about the game. They stop telling any story let alone their own.
For the Western Bulldogs, the most prominent narrative about the club over the past year has been about the dry but important issue of equalisation. This is clearly a critical argument to have, but it is not the most engaging story to be told at the club. For fans interested in their team, the storyline has been only one of poor club fighting big club.
Plainly, with an articulate and intelligent president in Peter Gordon, who has been at the centre of equalisation negotiations on behalf of the smaller clubs, this was unavoidably the case. Gordon has given the Dogs a voice in the debate among presidents, and on radio slots and in the broad footy debate that they have needed.
The Dogs have a quiet and measured coach, a captain of a similar, understated approach, but no football manager to talk on football matters. Consequently, there is no one contributing to the conversation about the Bulldogs.
This is not said to criticise coach Brendan McCartney or captain Ryan Griffen, both of whom are good people doing good jobs. But as a club, one senior person in football must be comfortable to contribute to the football discussion to retain some traction in the market and give fans some reason to engage with the club. Bob Murphy, through his columns in The Age and on pay TV, is the most visible Dog.
The Saints have remained more prominent in a football conversation because of the change and unrest that has gone on there in the past 12 months. This, though, has not always been the narrative the club has liked, or needed, about itself.
The newspaper coverage of the Victorian clubs this season tells part of a tale. The Western Bulldogs have appeared on the back pages of The Age or the Herald Sun with a story or a picture fewer times than any other Victorian club. Indeed, if that is broadened to all clubs, Gold Coast has featured on the back pages more often (courtesy, admittedly, of having the best player in the game at the club). The Bulldogs obviously do not make those decisions, but it is neither conspiracy nor coincidence that it is the case.
The Sweeney Sports Report, the authoritative sports marketing analysis used by advertisers and sponsors to measure performance and market penetration of sports and clubs, uses Australian Bureau of Statistics-weighted market surveys to assess the market. It found that of people across Australia who admitted to following AFL as their preferred sport, the Bulldogs were ranked lower than the Gold Coast and above only Greater Western Sydney.
When that filter was refined to AFL followers in Victoria alone, North Melbourne was the least supported team below Melbourne, then the Bulldogs and the Saints. Collingwood and Geelong were equal on top, with Hawthorn next.
These figures are largely unsurprising as they reflect the structural issues that the presidents will be discussing on Wednesday. But sports marketing and communications company Team Epic said the clubs fluctuated in their level of awareness in the market separate to their on-field form, and that their levels of engagement with their members was important in this.
According to sports marketing expert Ben Crowe, who left sports marketing company Gemba this week to launch a new digital sports story website, Unscriptd, the failure to tell your own story was a slippery slope in the sports market.
”If your story does not get told you become irrelevant in the marketplace very quickly and that is the biggest fear any brand has,” said Crowe, who has written business plans for several AFL clubs..
“If you construct a business where you rely on the idea that winning games and on-field success is the only story you have to tell, that is a very fragile approach.”
Crowe said any football club had three stages: success, hope and despair. Only one club a year was able to win the flag, so the idea of selling the club on the basis of success was a wafer-thin approach. Hope was the market all clubs essentially wished to occupy. Despair was nobody’s idea of a place to be.
“Your story does not just have to be about on-field success,” he said. “In fact, you probably do not want to tie your story to what is happening on the field.”
Regardless, a club has to be the one telling that story and you can’t stop talking because your club is not winning.
“Great brands do not make you feel good about the brand, they make you feel good about yourself, and so you want to associate with that brand. That is what sporting clubs do,” Crowe said.