The marketing advice rugby league ought to follow

While rugby league has spent the past decade or so embroiled with in-fighting and re-structuring, its external marketing at all levels has left a lot to be desired.

A fascinating sports marketing insight from America, relating to the previously unfashionable NBA team New Jersey Nets, sparked interest over the weekend.

A number of the suggestions put forward, and their context, are relatable to rugby league.

It’s time rugby league stopped feeling sorry for itself and started to be pro-active in getting out there.

The thread from Joe Portsmouth is available below, and we’ve broken down the 10 key philosophies from it and related them to rugby league below.

1. Identify who you are not

A big problem for rugby league is the obsession with being ‘elite’. A lot of clubs are lopsided with multiple specialist positions that do not stack up alongside the finances.

There’s also the constant paranoia about being restricted to the “heartlands” and not being a nationwide sport.

Rugby league takes its place as one of the so-called “big five” in the UK. It can’t pretend to be played everywhere at a professional level like others, but it still has a strong enough base without that.

2. Identify where you have a chance to win

There are big cities that are untapped in rugby league terms on its doorstep – notably Liverpool and Manchester.

Just how can rugby league tap in to those markets and reach out to large populations and people where Premier League football is perhaps out of reach, for numerous reasons.

An issue rugby league has had in the past is taking big games on the road to places where a team is nowhere near.

If it can somehow find a hook for the Liverpool or Manchester populations, then they have teams in respectable travelling distance to support.

3. Create strategies in the defined areas where there is a chance to win.

While the Toronto Wolfpack stay in the RFL pyramid was likely doomed from the start, it did provide a fine example of this point.

Many clubs enjoyed their best attendances when the Wolfpack came to town – simply because they put the effort in to market the opposition.

Toronto, even when packed with players many may have seen before, were marketed as a team coming to town that was worth seeing.

It would be interesting to see if the same sort of marketing efforts went in to playing certain other teams, what the outcome would be.

4. Collect names, addresses, and phone numbers

The Our League app has been a big driver of this element, as rugby league looks to maximise its offering for commercial partners.

But even as recently as a few years ago, some Super League clubs were simply selling tickets in cash and not collecting any customer data.

There has been a big push from the RFL’s marketing department to ensure clubs are up to speed.

Outside of Super League, the return on investment strategy means that clubs’ approach to customer data – amongst other things – are reflected in their central funding payout.

5. Ask your present customers to buy a little bit more

The jury is out as to whether rugby league is good or not at this.

The number of shirt releases and the approach to asking season ticket holders not to request refunds post-COVID suggests that it is on the case.

But the main issue appears to be turning casual or new fans from just that to being ‘die hards’.

6. Know the difference between big and little customers

A big problem rugby league has at present is it doesn’t listen to its fans enough.

While people are cut down for moaning, there are some genuine concerns over certain things.

PROBLEMS: Lost its magic? Looking at some of the issues raised by fans about rugby league

These are too easily brushed off.

It is a lot harder for rugby league to find new fans than it is to keep existing fans on side.

Until it stops alienating fans it already has, it will struggle to grow.

7. If your product is perceived as low value, don’t discount. Increase value.

The number of times you hear people saying “give out free tickets” to boost attendances doesn’t bear thinking about.

It creates a dangerous precedent, and creates a culture where fans simply wait for the offers.

That is not what rugby league wants or needs.

While there is an argument that ticket prices have climbed too high in recent years, rather than discounting, added value should be created.

What about giving out a scarf (or suitable summer rugby alternative!) to those who purchase a certain number of full price match tickets each season?

8. Answer the rough complaints yourself.

Hard for me to judge how often this happens in rugby league – my experience of fans forums is that too much time is often wasted by people complaining about referees.

9. Force closeness with the customer.

How many fans feel close with their club owners or senior staff?

OUTSIDERS: Nationwide survey shows rugby league fans feel shut out and let down

There is often a divide that is created by an “us and them” mentality.

That being said, there are some examples of owners putting themselves at the coal face in rugby league. Wakefield’s Michael Carter is one that I have seen on the terraces speaking to fans, both home and away, as well as being present in various visible roles off the pitch.

10. Find your rubber chicken

This is the million dollar challenge. The Wire Flyer? Kevin Larroyer?

With the various COVID restrictions hopefully behind us, it’s time for rugby league clubs to put their faith in marketing strategies that can push the boundaries.

What would you do to improve the marketing of your club or rugby league in general? Let us know in the comments below!

8 Comments

  1. I started watching Salford in 1947 through rough times etc. I never missed a match
    home and away in the 1960’s and 70’s travelling from Blackpool each week to the
    Willows for the home games usually on Friday nights.I continued to watch them until
    they moved to the A.J.Bell. What a shambles, to get parking and worse still trying to
    get off. I have now given up watching.

  2. I can’t see any of that, they’ll split into two tiers, they’ll claim equality but one will be the elite clubs, then a few years down the line the second nd tier will be collapsing the top ten clubs will go cap in hand to the RFU looking for an elite merger. How many opportunities does Rugby League need? Vested interests have too much power. The sport is dying a slow death. I know many who now no longer bother, they’ve found other things to occupy their time.

  3. For god sake go back to traditional numbering system, how on earth do you teach kids or anyone new to the game that 24 is the fullback etc etc .
    It’s absolutely ridiculous, supposedly brought in to sell more replica shirts I believe ?
    Would love see the data on that ?
    It’s only brought confusion in my view.
    Must of been thought up by a accountant called Nigel who knows nothing about rugby league !

  4. In short get Matchroom (the Hearns) involved. But there is no chance of that while the people in the top offices at the RFL have self interest at the top of their to do list

  5. Great example / case study that league clubs could learn a lot for
    . However the article has not reflected on what this means for rugby league, just used it to trot out some preconceived ideas.

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