Revolution? More like 'Rebelution'
24 Feb 2011
Dr Anthony Kerr
This opinion piece first appeared in the National Times on 24 February2011.
Throughout history, revolution has excited crowds and transformed social and political landscapes. In the 18th century, the French Revolution redefined Europe while, across the Atlantic, the American Revolutionary War gave birth to a nation. For the past month or so, the Melbourne Rebels have asked Australian rugby fans to "join the Rebelution" and so, along with 25,000 other patrons, I headed to AAMI Park for the club's initial salvo in the 2011 Super Rugby campaign.
The night began promisingly enough. Despite a blockbuster NAB Cup triple-header at Etihad, downtown Melbourne was awash in a sea of blue and white, the side's chosen war paint. Indeed, the few brave souls who had arrived in the sky-blue of the NSW Waratahs were thoroughly outnumbered.
For the first 20 minutes or so an upset was on the cards over their highly-fancied rivals. Oh yes, the Rebels were up for the fight. The Rebelution had arrived!
Advertisement: Story continues below It soon appeared that it could be a long and weary campaign though as, despite looking threatening early on, the class of the Waratahs shone through.
When the smoke had settled, the Rebels would be left scoreless and ruing lost opportunities (perhaps on and off the field). As I left the ground, I wondered what this all meant for a team looking to build a fan base in Australia's already crowded sports marketplace. The club could count on the "honeymoon" effect – the novelty factor of a new stadium, such as AAMI Park – to deliver revenue, or they may suffer from the malaise of "fair-weather" fans who only support a team when it performs well.
Like all new products, brand awareness needs to be created to encourage consumers to "give it a go", and the Rebels – along with sponsor RaboDirect – engaged in significant advertising in the lead-up to the season. Sport marketers are unable to control their core product, the on-field contest, and so are cautioned against relying on a winning record as a marketing strategy. Indeed, many marketers have faced their own Waterloo by relying upon on-field success to attract fans only to see injuries or poor weather spoil their plans. Although the club has been well received by the general public, repeat purchase from the 25,000 plus who gave the Rebels a go depends on how well supporters identify with the brand.
It has been argued that consumers go through four stages as they bond with a favourite team – awareness, attraction, attachment and allegiance. Astute sport marketers can encourage this bond by manipulating things such as media exposure, style of play or player personnel in their battle for the hearts (and wallets) of the Melbourne's AFL loving public.
Fox Sports has the exclusive broadcast rights to Super Rugby in Australia and, while this ensures that rugby fans have the "best seat in the house" and delivers the club income, it does little to introduce the Rebels brand to those two-thirds of Australians reliant on free-to-air coverage. A concerted attempt to foster grassroots support at the community level will go a long way towards addressing this imbalance.
Super Rugby delivers the best rugby union club competition in the world, and Melburnians come out in droves to support the best and brightest sport events, yet many locals are unaware of how thrilling the game can be. It is critical that coach, Rod Macqueen's squad, a combination of youth and experience, delivers on his promise that the Rebels will play "a brand of rugby that people want to watch" — attractive, free-flowing and keeping the ball in hand. If successful, these "Rebelutionaries" will inspire thousands of Victorians who now play the game. Failure to do so will leave many sport fans, especially fans of the AFL, shaking their heads and wondering what the fuss was all about.
While the AFL remains "the elephant in the room", the Rebels would be wise to heed the lessons learnt from rival codes. Super Rugby does not need to threaten the AFL to survive; it only needs to peacefully coexist. For example, one of Melbourne's favourite sons, Ian "Molly" Meldrum supports both the AFL's St Kilda and the NRL's Melbourne Storm, and many local A-League fans also barrack for an AFL team. It is up to the Rebels to provide an attractive product and recruits will surely follow.
Although the Rebels lack a long and prestigious history, corporate and membership sales are strong, and thousands of the Rebel Army sing the club's praises via Facebook and Twitter. The army is strong and growing in number and, as they prepare once again for battle, the future looks bright.
The Rebels should be better off for the run but it shows that good trial form is not the same as the intensity that Super Rugby will deliver week-in, week-out.
The Rebels may have lost the battle, but it is a long and bloody campaign over 21 gruelling weeks. It remains to be seen who will win the war, but another lacklustre performance may well see viewers change the channel.
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.