We’re more than halfway through the AFL season, but there’s one team that still doesn’t seem to be on the ladder at all: Queensland Football Club.
Why? Because the Queensland Football Club doesn’t exist — at least not in the realm of being a footy team.
Instead, Queensland Football Club is an athletic leisure brand run by South Yarra-based Ken Sakata, with its third drop of items being released today at 5:30pm AEST.
The third drop follows two successful runs that saw items selling out in as little as eight minutes, making profits which have allowed Sakata to continue investing in the business.
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In a chat with SmartCompany, Sakata explained how the fake club came about, his woes with Mark Zuckerberg, and why running Queensland Football Club is a bit like growing a plant.
Many Australians — and particularly Victorians — found different lockdown hobbies during the pandemic to keep busy and stay distracted.
As an assistant elective surgeon, Sakata found himself working on the frontlines of Australia’s response to COVID-19, which was “a pretty intense time” to say the least.
“Everything had a huge impact on either my own health or the health of others,” Sakata said.
“I felt like I was slowly losing my mind.”
Sakata went online to blow off some steam, but found himself quickly exhausted by the rhetoric that took over Twitter during the pandemic regarding case numbers, considering he was so close to the action himself.
“So I was like: ‘Oh, you know what? Wouldn’t it be funny if instead of tweeting about our pandemic response, I was just talking absolute garbage on a daily basis’,” Sakata said.
With a 400-strong following at the time, Sakata decided to make posts insinuating he was going to quit his day job and become a professional footballer.
The joke grew when Sakata decided to ask his friends — who have their own t-shirt company with AFL legends printed on them — if they could make a shirt with Sakata’s face on it, too.
The group thought it would be “pretty funny for like five minutes”.
“What we didn’t realise is that we would sell $2000 worth of t-shirts in a week”.
Quick fix turned permanent brand
The issue with selling so many of these shirts isn’t just that Sakata felt “a bit weird” knowing there were people walking around in shirts with his face on it.
It’s that very shortly after the shirts went live, Sakata received a cease and desist letter from the AFL, telling him he could no longer sell the shirt considering it had the Gold Coast Suns branding.
“For a couple of days, we redesigned [the t-shirt] so that instead of saying “Gold Coast Suns” it said “Queensland Football Club”,” Sakata explains, as a band-aid approach to avoid any further legal troubles.
But the quick fix continuing ruminating in Sakata’s mind, and at the start of this year, he thought it’d be a good idea to take the name and run with it.
Despite AFL being arguably the most popular sport in Australia, you don’t really ever see people wearing team guernsey’s around because it’s “not really acceptable casual wear”.
“So I decided that I was going to make up my own club and sell tastefully designed merch for it,” he said, with his aim for it to be sporting merch people could wear “while walking the dog”.
To start the business, Sakata “googled everything”, from where to source sweatshirts, what printer to get, how to use Shopify and so forth, treating the experience as “a bit of an adventure”.
But the “lean and mean” approach has allowed him to build the business that has been “profitable from day one”.
“Everything from drop one has funded drop two, and drop two has funded drop three and four,” Sakata said.
But profit isn’t the only reason Sakata has kept the joke going. He says the project has helped him get in touch with a lot of parts of his brain that “probably weren’t working for a long time”.
“As you can probably imagine, you don’t want your doctor to be like: ‘oh, let’s try this’.
“Whereas [at Queensland Football Club], I can do that. I call all the shots, but the stakes are very low.”
Unlike in surgery, something going wrong for Queensland Football Club would be a jumper not selling, Sakata says.
“And who gives a shit, really?” he laughs.
“It’s good to have that freedom in a way, and it’s good to be frivolous.
“I know I’m being interviewed by smart company, but it’s a stupid business. And I quite enjoy running a stupid business. It’s very, very fulfilling.”
The Zuckerberg police
Sakata says he can acknowledge the business would not exist if not for social media, with the Twitter following of Queensland Football Club growing to more than 1000 followers.
“It’s purely a word of mouth business,” Sakata said. “I am astounded that people know about it.”
But people do, and like other business owners, Sakata would like to reach even more people.
Despite being a legitimate business — based off of something entirely fake — Sakata has found his attempts at buying paid ads online fail, after being flagged for misrepresentation.
“Once again Mr Zuckerberg, selling casual wear for a non-existent club is odd behaviour, but it is not illegal,” Sakata tweeted earlier this month.
— Sakata (@QLDFootballClub) June 15, 2022
“The policing of [Facebook and Instagram] policies is all done algorithmically with bots, I assume,” Sakata said.
“And there’s no customer service to speak of, because so many people must have problems and there’s no one to talk to.
“I think it’s a disaster, really.”
Sakata says he “has no choice in the matter” when it comes to keeping his promotion of Queensland Football Club organic, as his ad account on Instagram has not only been flagged as suspicious, it’s been disabled.
“I just ruminate on that on a daily basis: ‘How am I going to get more eyes on this thing? On this very strange thing?’”
To the Grand Final we go
Winning the flag this year is off the cards for Queensland Football Club, but Sakata is still optimistic about the future. Although he admits the business will have to “fundamentally change”.
One such change would be making things locally, rather than buying ready-made items overseas.
The move to the local brand being locally made is already in play, with Sakata managing to find someone in Australia to make the products and a pattern maker to design a new cut of items – with drop five expected in a few months time to be the first locally-made release.
Amid his optimism and forward-planning, Sakata does say his ultimate goal is just for Queensland Football Club to “not die”
“That’s the bottom tier [of expectations].”
“It’s like having a plant: everyone’s speculating ‘will this seedling be an oak tree or will it grow avocados?’. And it’s nice to speculate.
“But I’m just trying to keep it alive on a month-to-month basis.”