The upcoming inaugural season of the AFL National Women’s League is turning sports marketing into a whole new ball game as local businesses jump on board to support the eight clubs in the competition.
This morning retailer Harris Scarfe unveiled a partnership with the Adelaide Crows women’s team, the first sports partnership in the company’s 167-year history. Meanwhile, Sydney Airport and financial services provider FlexiGroup have signed on with the Greater Western Sydney women’s team, while Harvey Norman will be the Giants’ partner sponsor.
“This is a historic time for the AFL with the introduction of the first ever national women’s league and it’s exciting leading Australian organisations like Harvey Norman, FlexiGroup and Sydney Airport are supporting this historic step forward,” GWS Giants chief executive David Matthews said in a report on the club’s website.
Harris Scarfe sees its partnership as a way to reach a new audience as the brand eyes expansion projects.
“We see the women’s league as an exciting innovation in elite sport,” the store’s general manager of marketing Simon Burrett said of the announcement.
“For us, it’s a vehicle to spread the word about our own innovations, and about our exciting future.”
Eight teams will take part in the first season of the official AFL’s women’s league from 2017. The competition has been driven by the demand of footy fans, but sponsorship will become a vital part of the equation, given that the pay scale will be capped at $25,000 and many players will take home $5,000 a year for their efforts throughout the season. Meanwhile, the average pay for male AFL players in 2015 sat at around the $300,000 mark.
Sports management consultant and researcher Dr Danya Hodgetts told SmartCompany companies choosing to sponsor the new league will be aware that sports sponsorship is increasingly a partnership rather than a buy-in.
“It’s a great opportunity to reach a new audience, and for small to medium businesses looking to partner with a sporting club, it’s about an alignment of values,” she says.
“In the past a lot of companies have had problems with the off-field behaviour [of sporting clubs]. I think they probably think there’s less of a chance of that kind of off-field behaviour happening in the women’s league.”
Sponsors are revealing their club alliances this week ahead of an All-Stars exhibition match between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs this coming Saturday evening. The creation of the league came from the grassroots efforts of players and fans, and brands will now have a chance to engage in that grassroots spirit, says Hodgetts.
“It has to be about the brand being involved in the sport at all levels, so there’s a really integrated and embedded experience,” she says.
Janey Paton, director of strategic marketing firm Belles and Whistles, says that businesses should also be jumping at the chance to differentiate themselves from the many controversies around gender and the AFL that have surfaced this year.
“You’re showing that your brand is innovative and supporting a new category of sport,” she says.
“This is a really important new category.”
This week’s sponsorship announcements mark a shift after many years of crowdfunding campaigns from women’s AFL clubs to simply get on the team bus and play.
The clubs are also aware of the close brand integration that they will have with sponsors.
“There are great synergies between the Crows and Harris Scarfe; both brands have a strong culture and an uncompromising pursuit of excellence through innovation and passion,” Adelaide Football Club chief executive Andrew Fagan said of the club’s new sponsor.
These partnerships are also going to have to be long term, says senior lecturer in marketing at University of Technology Sydney, David Waller.
“A smart sponsor will get in there early as a good, long-term investment,” he told SmartCompany.
“We’re in a climate where we’re seeing a lot of the big players cutting their sponsorship all up. Meanwhile the men’s league is bringing in millions, and they [the women’s league] are starting well behind.”
The inaugural season will mark a clean slate where brands have the chance to build a grassroots relationship with fans from scratch.
“I have a feeling that for this first season it’s going to be very competitive,” Waller says.
“It’s the first season, there is going to be a lot of attention.”