Souths go top of the (fan engagement) table

New South Wales’ win in game one of the 2013 NRL State of Origin wasn’t the only kairotic moment at ANZ Stadium this week, with the match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Newcastle Knights also proving a masterstroke.

And, no, I’m not referring to the win by the Rabbitohs which consolidated their position at the top of the NRL table.

Rather, at the risk of sounding corny, fan engagement was the winner. You see, Saturday’s match was the first time that ANZ Stadium, in partnership with the Rabbitohs, had launched an initiative with the intention of turning a footy game day into a ‘day out’ at the footy.

Called the Bunnies Backyard BBQ, the intention was to create the feel of a family-friendly Tailgate Party.

Previously seen as a subculture, Tailgate Parties, or any pre-match events held at game-day venues, are now part and parcel of mainstream sports in the US.

Former Masterchef contestant and Chief Foodie at Stadium Grub Australia, Kevin Perry, was the driving force behind the initiative, initially approaching the Rabbitohs with the concept, in his quest to bring “great food and entertainment” to sports matches across the country.

At every sports business event that I have presented at, I have kicked and screamed (to anybody that listens) that fan engagement should act as the 5th ‘P’ in marketing, when it comes to sport (and yes, I do realise fan engagement does not have a P).

It’s always been my belief that the ’emotional’ element which overlays sport means that there needs to be a glue which holds them all together beyond the usual 4 P’s – Price, Product, Promotion, Place – something that gives a sense of ownership to the fan, and allows them to buy in to the concept of ‘my team’.

Beyond the emotional predisposition is also a financial one.

Another concept I continue to go on and on and on about is that of ‘share of leisure time and wallet’.

What I mean by this is that sports need to be aware that they are not only competing against other codes in the aim of getting people through turnstiles, or bums on seats, but also compete against other forms of leisure activity.

At the end of a given week, families, couples and individuals have a set portion of disposable income, or ‘leisure money’, which they choose to spend as they wish, most of the time a collective decision between friends or family, on some type of activity that they enjoy. Generally, people also have a set period of ‘leisure time’, that time which they have which isn’t dedicated to the mandatory ‘stuff’ (you know, work, errands, etc).

In this scenario, one sports code is not only competing against another sports code, but also other forms of leisure such as restaurants, theatres, cinemas, etc.

So what then drives this decision, and more importantly in this scenario, what can drive a family, couple, or individuals, as part of a collective, to choose to attend a football match over other forms of leisure activity?

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Above: The Rabbitohs scored a try with this fan engagement effort

Time and monetary value.

Picture this. If I purchase a ticket to a match day, what does that entitle me to? Travelling 40 mins, looking for a car spot for 20 mins, paying extra for the luxury of parking on the 5th level, dragging kids along for 20 mins, getting in there and sitting next to complete strangers hoping they’re not one of those ‘crazy’ groups, watching a 80-90 minute match, whilst spending a total of 20 mins at the bar/canteen….

You get the picture.

Now, here is a different scenario.

What about if my ticket price entitled me to get to the stadium three of four hours before kick-off, in which time I could mix and mingle with other fans, talk strategy, have a gourmet burger or hot dog, watch the kids as they enjoyed the nearby jumping castle, meet some of the players and take some snaps before the big game. Even, make some friends, and agree to meet next time, same time, same place, in time for the next match…

Would this be more appealing? Would the value derived from the time and money you have put in be more appealing to you, the fan?
Back to the Rabbitohs.

Kudos needs to go to ANZ Stadium, the Rabbitohs as well as Perry, for taking the initiative and looking beyond the start and finishing siren, with the intention of making a day out of an 80-minute rugby league match, realising that the educated fan wants more out of their leisure choice.

The free barbeque, coffee, jumping castle and face-painting, cooking competition, kids clinic, and the chance to meet and take photos with players Matt King or Michael Crocker gave fans a chance to mix and mingle with like-minded fans, and create a deeper connection, a stickiness, with their club, and not only their team.

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Above: A league fan (yes, that’s me on the right) with Kevin Perry

Speaking with Perry at the event, he was passionate about the unique benefits of these pre-game events. “It’s Stadium Grub’s vision that every fan gets the best experience possible on game day, through great food, awesome entertainment and a close connection to their club community.”

He went on to say, “The event we’ve co-produced today with the Rabbitohs, and supported by ANZ Stadium, is a win for everyone – the club, stadium and game-day ticket holder. It’s a great event we’re seeking to replicate across all sports, all codes, working with every stadium in Australia who wants to deliver the best game day experience possible to their customers.”

It is a scenario I can only hope other teams grab with both hands, because sooner or later us sports fans won’t have any excuses left when trying to convince our family or significant other loved ones that a football match provides more ‘leisure value’ than dinner and a movie!

Nic Ferraro is the founder and managing director of Sports Business Insider, the leading source of news, analysis and opinion on the business side of sports.

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