Monday, March 20, 2023

The main political parties have a membership problem. Football club marketing could offer some solutions

A big story to emerge from the 2022 federal election result was the grassroots strength of the Independents, who evicted both the Liberals and Labor into historically “safe seats”.

But the main parties’ problems extend beyond Election Day; they are also reflected in the terminal trajectory of party affiliation.

In 2020, The Guardian reported that the Australian Labor Party has around 60,000 members. The Liberal Party is currently estimated to have around 40,000 members, up from 197,000 during the halcyon days of the 1950s.

By comparison, there were eight AFL clubs in 2021 with more members than each of the two major parties. Two have more members than both parties combined.

When accounting for population growth, the Liberal Party membership rate has plummeted since the 1950s, while AFL club membership has increased roughly eightfold since the 1980s.

So what can major football club parties learn about how to increase community support?

Read More: AFL and NRL grand final TV ratings show codes still based on their traditional territories

Mixing sport and politics

Political parties and sports teams are, in fact, quite similar conceptually.

Both represent a tribe of people who share a common identity, competing against other similar tribes in contests subject to formal rules, be they elections or parties.

Political parties and sports teams are not just about winning (or at least, they shouldn’t be). At best, they nurture a broad and passionate base of supporters through collective identity.

Despite a common purpose, they differ fundamentally in their approaches to attracting support.

The Main Political Parties Have A Membership Problem. Football Club Marketing Could Offer Some Solutions
What can football club main matches learn about how to increase community support?
AAP Image/Joel Carrett

The major political parties engage in what marketers call “transactional marketing”; they are largely focused on getting a sale (a vote) in a single moment (an election).

Such transactional approaches foster a weak link with major political parties outside of election times, leaving them vulnerable to shifts in voter preferences.

Sports teams strive for what is known as “relationship marketing”; they focus on building relationships with fans that foster long-term attachment and loyalty.

Fostering such loyalty is vital for sports teams to get through the bumps that come with fluctuating performance on the field.

The value of a relational approach is particularly evident in times of crisis.

Despite the Essendon Bombers drug scandal being dubbed the “blackest day in Australian sport”, the club’s membership surged in the immediate aftermath, as supporters galvanized behind the club.

Of course, treating political parties like sports teams, which fans tend to support through thick and thin, risks fostering bad politics; a rusty Liberal or Labor supporter may find themselves rooting for the party even when he launches dire policies.

There is a similar problem in sports; football clubs accused of systematic cheating or even institutional racism tend to retain supporters.

I am not arguing that blind support is ideal, but rather that the success football clubs have found in growing membership and connecting with communities could offer some lessons for the main political parties.

3 principles of sports marketing

Here are three key lessons that top parties could learn from football clubs.

1. Authentically connect with target communities

Brand authenticity means developing a genuine, natural, honest and real relationship with your constituents.

NRL’s South Sydney Rabbitohs launched Souths Cares in 2006 as a community arm with a charter to support disadvantaged and marginalized youth and families, particularly Aboriginal people in the local area.

The AFL’s North Melbourne also launched The Huddle in 2010, recognizing how the region’s unique cultural diversity underpinned its goal of driving social inclusion.

Such initiatives are authentic because they are rooted in real communities, genuinely address local issues and extend from a natural alignment between club and community.

This allows the football clubs, which have evolved from kitchen table organizations to A$50+ million business operations, to remain authentically embedded in the community.

2. Engage current and potential followers 365 days a year

Sports marketers maintain a necessary focus on game day. But this is embedded in broader communication and community strategies that aim to achieve year-round engagement.

Non-match days typically account for 95% of the calendar year, which is why sports clubs employ communications specialists to produce multimedia content beyond the match itself.

This includes player-focused interviews and biographies, match previews and summaries, coach insights, and community visits.

Such content helps bridge the gap between individual matches or the off-season, keeping fans connected to their club.

And while sports clubs focus on their home games as major business events, professional sports clubs also have a broader schedule of less open community events.

While a typical AFL or NRL club hosts around 12 home games per season, they host at least triple the number of community-oriented events, such as school visits or fan days, to encourage community involvement.

3. Define and live an organizational identity

Sports teams are best known for their mascots and colors, but are also defined by the values ​​they seek to associate the brand with, eg family oriented, trailblazing, working class.

All these elements combine to form the identity of a club.

Well-defined identities can inform decision-making, like the Sydney Swans’ legendary “no jerks” team recruiting policy.

Melbourne Football Club’s core values ​​of “trust, respect, unity and excellence” inform the recruitment of its off-field staff. The club identity also helps fans understand why they support one particular team over another.

Where football clubs protect and cultivate their identity, the main parties struggle against the perception that everyone is “as bad as everyone else”: there is a perceived interchangeability.

By better defining their desired identities with communities outside of the elections, major parties would become less reliant on election campaign ad spending wars to educate voters.

They would also be less vulnerable to smear campaigns.

The Main Political Parties Have A Membership Problem. Football Club Marketing Could Offer Some Solutions
The main parties fight against the perception that everyone is “as bad as everyone else”.
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Rewriting the game plan

While Australia’s professional sports teams continue to demonstrate success in engaging communities, our main political parties are struggling to build and retain membership.

Given the disappointing performance of the major political parties on the final day of the game, it may be time for them to rewrite their game plans with the help of sports marketers.

Read more: Regardless of the rules, sport flees from free pay TV, and it could be an avalanche

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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