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FFA embraces ‘challenger brand’ status as A-League spin-off heralds new dawn for Australian soccer

Sydney FC players and fans celebrate the team's victory in the 2019 A-League Grand Final

  • Australian football set to adopt Premier League-style model, with FFA adapting to life after relinquishing control over the A-League
  • FFA acts “like a challenger brand” in market where football is the fourth-largest sport, focusing on providing a platform for sponsors to engage with younger and more diverse audiences than more visible rivals
  • Governing body has revamped its digital output in recent years, bringing editorial content in-house and focusing on collecting fan data to better personalise its own marketing campaigns and help commercial partners

Australian football entered a new stage in its development earlier this year with the announcement that the A-League and W-League – the top divisions of the men’s and women’s games respectively – would be spun off from the country’s governing body, Football Federation Australia, in time for the 2019-20 season.

The move was driven by the owners of the ten A-League and W-League clubs, desperate to insert some impetus back into the domestic game after watching A-League growth stagnate in recent years. Regular-season average attendances peaked at just under 15,000 over a decade ago, declining year-on-year in each of the last five seasons. Gate receipts have fallen in each of the last two. TV audiences hit their lowest level for eight years in the 2017-18 season, the latest for which figures are available. Team owners have long complained that the costs of running the clubs vastly outstrips the revenues they have been able to generate under the franchise system.

The A-League spin-off sees Australia adopting a structure that is common in Europe, where the likes of the Premier League, LaLiga and Bundesliga are operated by bodies separate from the national federations, a model which has been credited with encouraging significant growth of both commercial and broadcast rights in those leagues.

Luke Bould, the chief commercial and chief marketing officer of the FFA, describes the move as a “grand experiment” and cautions that the model shouldn’t be expected to yield immediate results, particularly because of the unfamiliarity of the set-up in the Australian market, where a single rights-holder tends to oversee a whole sport. “We will have to see how the business community reacts to that, although so far the response has been positive.”

Luke Bould, chief commercial and marketing office of the FFA, speaks at the SportAccord Convention 2019 (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

“We’re adopting a model that has worked in countries where football is the number one sport,” Bould says, noting that Australian rules football, cricket and rugby league all outstrip soccer for domestic popularity. “Having said that, I think there’s a clear view that the A-League needs more focus than perhaps what it’s had over the past ten years, and having an entity whose sole focus is on the two leagues is a positive thing. I think there has to be some change and we want there to be some change.

“I can’t sit here and say, hand on heart, ‘that’s the best model for this environment.’ But I can tell you that I, and everyone else involved, will work as hard as we can to make it work.”

Untangling the knots

With the A-League now responsible for its own operations, Bould’s concerns are maintaining and growing the commercial programme for the assets that remain under FFA control, primarily the FFA Cup domestic knock-out competition, the national teams – the women’s Matildas and the men’s Socceroos – and grassroots and community initiatives.

Despite soccer’s positioning in the Australian market and the A-League’s struggles, Bould has developed a robust commercial platform at the FFA, attracting major global brands such as McDonald’s, Hyundai and TAG Heuer by playing into the game’s strengths in Australia and capitalising on the popularity of the national teams. “We want a smaller number of high-paying partners, that’s how we set up our sponsorship family” he says. “If you look across our list of sponsors, they’re either the top brand in their category or they’re the number one challenger brand. We like leading brands, but we like challenger brands as well, because they share our position to an extent and understanding of the need to do things a bit differently to other sports.”

Having access to the whole of the game in Australia has been a crucial part of the appeal of taking an FFA sponsorship for brands, Bould says, and is part of the reason that the body’s separation from the A-League and W-League should not necessitate a complete rebuild.

“One of the nuances of this market is that commercial partners generally want to buy football, not a specific product,” Bould says. While that may speak as much to the weakness of the A-League in recent years as to the strengths of other offerings, it has nevertheless strengthened the FFA’s position. “Brands might want league and community, they might want Socceroos and grassroots, but it’s very rare, in our sponsorship family of 25 partners, that a brand takes just the league or just the national team. They want the breadth of the game and that’s something that our structure has allowed us to give them.”

The Matildas’ Emily Gielnik celebrates after scoring against Norway in the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images )

Bould says it is too early to predict what eventual affect the separation will have, either on the number of sponsors retained or on the organisation’s ultimate bottom line. “We’re definitely going to see changes in the structure of our sponsorship family as a result,” he says. Conversations have been held with every commercial partner about the ramifications of the news, and several are currently in renewal negotiations. “It’d be fair to say the announcement has had an impact on every single one of those discussions,” he says, but cannot reveal more while talks are ongoing.

Because of interconnectedness of the FFA’s programme, the process of extricating the A-League from the FFA will not be a straightforward one. “We know where most of the money is supposed to go, so money that has been used to sponsor assets or purchase IP around the Socceroos, for example, will stay with the FFA, and equally money that is allocated around the A-League will move with the A-League.”

Where brands had taken a league partnership alongside still-disputed assets, there is more work to do. McDonald’s, for instance, sponsors the FFA’s grassroots programmes and its E-League Fifa esports competition as well as being a major partner of the professional leagues. The rights around the E-League are particularly complicated, and it is less clear where funds should be allocated. Each club in the A-League also has an E-League counterpart, and E-League fixtures mirror the final nine games of the A-League season. But the FFA is hoping to retain the rights to the esports tournament, which has proved successful in its first two seasons and forms a key part of the FFA’s growth strategy for the sport. The E-League will remain in partnership between the FFA and the A-League, for the short term at least, and further conversations about its future will include sponsors such as McDonald’s, which will look to retain an interest.

“We benefit a lot from the Fifa series,” Bould says. “Gaming is big thing for young people, they really get into the sport that way, and one of the benefits in an Australian context is that the other major sports in this country don’t really have games like that, so it’s a very beneficial pathway for us and a good way to talk to that audience.”

Challenger status

Because of football’s status in Australia, as a growing sport attempting to muscle out bigger rivals for attention, the FFA tries to function “as a challenger brand,” Bould says. “That’s how we view ourselves, that’s how we have to approach the market. We don’t have the ability like the Australian Football League or National Rugby League to say to potential partners, ‘there’s a million people watching every Friday night’. So we have to talk about the audiences we do reach, how they engage with us, and how that directs across the wider football landscape.”

Football is the youngest sport in Australia in terms of its mass following, attracts the youngest audience on Fox Sports, is the biggest team participation sport by a considerable distance and performs strongly on gender equality measures, both in terms of the wider fanbase and participation. These are all factors which “create interesting ways to reach hard-to-reach audiences for brands,” Bould says.

The women’s game and community football are now the two fastest growing revenue sources for the FFA, in large part because the body has been able to attract sponsors off the back of its audience profile. Supermarket chain Aldi has signed on as a sponsor of the Miniroos, the nationwide introductory programme for six-to-11-year-olds, “in order to talk to that younger audience and particularly to families.” Australia’s flag-carrier airline Qantas is also in discussions over using its partnership similarly, says Bould, “because it gives them the chance to be proactive around things like gender equality. These are the things that we have to play up, we have to emphasise to our brand partners because, as I say, we can’t just point to a huge TV audience and give brands exposure that way. We have to segment our audience, we have to show brands how football is a better way to talk to the specific demographics they want to talk to.”

The FFA’s audience also “has a higher propensity to engage with the sport on digital platforms than other sports do,” Bould says, “which is linked to that younger audience but also the fact that football is a more global sport and fans want to follow the global game.”

The globalised nature of football “helps and hinders us,” Bould says. “Overall, it’s good. It’s the biggest sport in the world and that creates opportunities. We are a young sport in terms of our fanbase, and young people are global citizens these days. The world is at their fingertips. So football overall in this country is benefiting from that, because young Australians are connected to the world game like they’ve never been before.

“But for football, we’re not just competing against AFL and rugby league, but against the Premier League and LaLiga as well. We see people start playing or watching domestic football here because they’ve followed a team elsewhere in the world, but we need to improve on that and make more of that pathway to strengthen the Australian game.”

Digital strength

In order to do that, the FFA has completely revamped its digital approach, from the content it produces to the way it collects data about fans. Having had just one employee focused on the digital sector three years ago, the FFA now has a team of over 40 working to develop those pathways that will hopefully keep young Australian football fans within the Australian game. When Bould started at the FFA in 2014, “we were turning over about AUD$36,000 in digital revenues.” Without disclosing exact numbers, he says the number is now “many hundreds of times more than that.”

Between 2012 and 2017, FFA digital content output was overseen by global sports agency Perform. On the expiration of that arrangement, the FFA brought everything in-house, with the aim of having total control over its external communications and a direct connection to its fans.

The content includes everything from daily editorial on the website to long-form video. Shorter social media videos are generally among the most popular content, Bould says, in part because they can be more specifically targeted to the appropriate demographic.

A video focusing on the humanitarian work of then-Melbourne Victory striker Keisuke Honda, for example, was designed to target both male fans over 30, who show greater interest in these kinds of stories, and the Japanese audience. Whereas a video from the Matildas account – of two national team players mimicking a celebration adapted from Fortnite for the Fifa video game – attracted over 350,000 views and was designed, Bould says, “for young Matildas fans, who we know like to play Fifa and have a propensity to play Fortnite.”

Almost all content decisions taken by the FFA are data-driven, and the body is nearing the end of a project that will soon see it reach a single customer view of over two million Australian football fans, pulling together the data it has on fans from across multiple channels and sources to allow much more personalised, targeted interactions. “It means we can track how and where are fans are engaging with the game,” he says. “Are they actively participating? Who are they playing for? What is their A-League club? What content are they accessing across our digital assets? We will soon be able to bring all that together and be able to segment our audience, understand what content should be going where. We’re trying to be sophisticated about it because, given our position in the market, we have to be.”

Bould’s joint role as both chief marketing and chief commercial officer means that efforts are unified across the two verticals, so that marketing and fan engagement efforts feed directly back into conversations he is having with sponsors and potential partners. “Like I said, we have to talk to our strengths in this market, so being able to tell potential partners, ‘this is who we appeal to and this is how we can help you reach them’ is really important.”

Indeed, Bould has encouraged the FFA to “act like an agency”, pitching ideas directly to brands and sponsors, occasionally even beating out pitches from established agencies.

“Our sponsors expect that and it’s something we’ve really grown into,” he says. “We try and give our sponsors as many ideas as we possibly can. Sometimes those ideas are reasonably self serving. So, we’ve got an event and we need to make it better. We think it fits with what Qantas is doing, so we’ll go and pitch it to Qantas. But the underlying reality is that if it doesn’t fit with Qantas’ needs, it’s not going to work. So we need to understand both our fanbase really well, and also the strategies of our sponsors and how their changing business needs are evolving. Anyone can roll out a contract and put a few signs up. Creating real value and having a real relationship is about going that extra mile, particularly given where we’re coming from in the Australian market.”

The FFA is clearly facing a period of significant change, and the next few years will undoubtedly be a challenge as the organisation adjusts to its new reality. But with some of the FFA’s key assets, particularly women’s and community football, undergoing significant growth, and the body itself now set up to better serve the commercial market and its own fans, Bould believes the ship is steady – and that there is room in the market for both the FFA and the A-League to thrive.

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