The Storm, Rebels and sponsorship
10 Feb 2011
Dr Anthony Kerr
The next month will see Melbourne brace itself for a battle of the rugby codes. Local sport fans will welcome the Rebels as they begin their campaign to win the inaugural Super Rugby title, while the NRL's Storm will play their first meaningful game in almost a year when they host the Manly Sea Eagles. But while fans excitedly await the gladiatorial contests, one wonders who will take out bragging rights in the southern capital.
As both organisations enter the new season it is critical that they differentiate their brands to capture the hearts (and subsequently wallets) of casual fans in a crowded market. A brand identifies a seller's product and enables teams to stand for something different than their rivals. However, as they enter the new season, what do the Rebels and Storm brands represent?
Storm fans saw their team dominate the headlines last year, but for all the wrong reasons. Media reports screamed how a number of "rats in our ranks" had seen the Melbourne Storm breach the NRL salary cap by more than $3 million over a five-year period and how loyal fans were "shocked and saddened" to hear how their beloved club had orchestrated the biggest fraud in Australian sport history. The controversy, and ensuing punishment - the club was stripped of two premiership titles, fined and was unable to accrue competition points for the remainder of the season - distressed many fans, led to the loss of key sponsors, and threatened the future of the proud franchise.
Alarm bells were also ringing over at Rebels headquarters. Chief Executive, Brian Waldron, who had led the Storm during their 'dynasty', had been implicated in the salary cap controversy, and subsequently stepped down from the helm. Management soon righted the ship, however, and the Rebels will launch their inaugural season with strong corporate backing, recognisable players such as former Wallabies skipper, Stirling Mortlock and, in their final trial match against fellow Super Rugby competition, drew more than 13,000 fans. This compares favourably with Melbourne Storm's average attendance of 14,700, albeit during last year's annus horribilis.
Although some rugby league analysts have predicted the death of the franchise, the Storm has taken positive steps to recover from these events. The club announced that, despite not playing for competition points last year, their on-field efforts were expected to raise $150,000 for charity through the 'Points with a Purpose' initiative. Although they lose Greg Inglis, one of their 'Fab Four', Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater return, along with a crop of exciting youngsters. The Storm caravan has taken to the road with trial games in Brisbane and rural NSW and the club has received strong support from the corporate sector. This culminated last week when Crown Casino decided to go 'all in' as Storm players will wear the Crown logo next year. As the Storm's latest marketing campaign declares ... in 2011, they are 'Playing for Everything'.
Melbournians love their sport, however, in a congested calendar, it is important that both teams get off to a good start and develop their brand identity. A strong brand will attract supporters and generate revenue through memberships, media exposure and sponsorship. The Melbourne Storm is a proud club with a rich tradition and many analysts argue that it is the team of the past decade. In 2009, a national Roy Morgan Poll showed that the club was the most popular sports team in Melbourne (and the second most popular NRL club) and, in 2007, 76 percent of Melbournians surveyed had a positive perception of the brand. However, it remains to be seen how the events of the past year might have damaged its brand appeal and brand value.
As both teams embark on their 2011 campaigns, it is fitting that the Storm's major sponsor will be gaming giant, Crown Casino. In the face of intense competition from its cross-code rival, it will be interesting to see whether supporters take a gamble on the Storm this season or instead decide to 'sit this hand out'. The stakes have been raised in the battle for state bragging rights. Whatever the result, it shapes up as an exciting season for Storm, and Rebels, fans alike.
Dr Anthony Kerr is a lecturer in sport marketing and a member of the Centre for Sport and Social Impact at La Trobe University, Melbourne.