Fan engagement expert Kevin Rye says rugby league should be proud of its foundations and must stop looking for a “silver bullet” that doesn’t exist.
Speaking exclusively to Love Rugby League following the publication of a nationwide fans survey, Rye revealed his passionate opinions about the state of the game.
His Think Fan Engagement company was born out of helping football clubs improve their relationship with fans.
Rye is a fan of AFC Wimbledon, who welcome London Broncos as tenants to their new Plough Lane stadium in 2022.
Rugby league uncomfortable in its own skin
“Some of the stuff you see in rugby league is redolent of football 20 years ago. There are some good people out there and we mustn’t forget that’s what they are, but they get overshadowed by poor practice.
“There is this unswerving love and loyalty towards rugby league clubs that needs to be cherished and understood. It still surprises me when clubs behave that way. I think it becomes habitual.
“People in marketing and business development positions get stuck on this way of thinking that somehow what you need is constant change; changing the way you look, changing the way you sound, change the sport, change everything.
“Rather than think about what you actually are first – because you might find out you’ve actually got tremendous strength beneath all of it.
“What the survey is trying to come back to is capturing the major strength of rugby league – and it’s that very firm foundation, which some people seem to be actually quite embarrassed about.
“I think the problem is, you need to be happy in your own skin. And I’m not getting that message much from rugby league.”
On clubs changing logos with minimal fan consultation
“You’re not appreciating the history behind that. All you’re doing is re-designing a bit of stuff on a screen. It might as well be a sixth form design project. There’s no substance to it, no roots beneath it all. They’re just not thinking about what that (logo) means.
“What concerns me is the research tends to be a relatively small group of fans, or people who understand the fans.
“If you’re not going to ask the fans en masse, why are you not?
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“You’re either oblivious to it or you don’t want to know. So why don’t want you want to know?
“If it’s because you want to make all the decisions because you own the rugby league club, well it’s not yours I’m afraid.”
On constant changes
“Innovation shouldn’t be stifled. But innovation for its own sake, is dangerous and damaging. Because it makes you look like you’ve got no confidence in what you do.
“And rugby league has got a great origin story. Some of the clubs are very distinct.
“I’m often asked to look at Featherstone, and I don’t know a lot about, but I know it’s the smallest place in the UK with a professional sports club, and that’s an incredible thing.
“Use all of this stuff, because actually, it’s really exciting.
But it just seems to be me that there are a lot of people who don’t feel that way.
“They feel that they have to constantly innovate or re-invent the wheel. And I don’t think that’s what you need to be doing.
“You need to be getting down to what you’re about, get comfortable in your own skin, understand each other and get a conversation going across the game.”
On Eddie Hearn and marketing
“If I was someone like Eddie Hearn, I’d be asking what is it? What is it trying to be?
“It just seems to me that rugby league runs around looking for saviours all the time. It’s got a saviour syndrome.
“It needs to always find something that’s going to sort the problem out, and there is no silver bullet.
“The solution is having self confidence without arrogance.
“Listen to people who are coming through the gate every week.
“It’s not about constantly chopping and changing the rules, the constant changes of identity, the constant talk to moving to be a big giant franchise.
“The nature of English sport, like rugby league and football, is that the clubs have arrived and their origin stories are over a long period of time.
“But you need to work with that. If what you’re trying to do is basically smash all that to pieces and want something completely different, then you’re not recognising what you already are.
“I think any good marketer worth their salt would say your foundations are really strong, but you are ignoring them and you’re trying to constantly change yourself. And it’s making you very unstable.
“And actually, the thing you need to do is go back to basics. What are we? What’s the purpose of us? What are we doing? Why? Who’s important in the sport? Do we listen to them enough? How can we make sure that they feel part of the conversation? How we do make sure that we create businesses that can grow? And sustain good crowds? How do we protect the roots of the sport?
On the survey
After the publication of the nationwide fans’ survey, the RFL issued a response.
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On that, Rye said: “I felt it was a little defensive, dare I say a little think skinned.”
Further work is planned by Think Fan Engagement around rugby league, and clubs and individuals are encouraged to reach out to Kevin via social media or his company website.