Free kick for market and social researchers
A multi-University research project carried out in association with the Australian Football League has recently received funding from the Australian Research Council to investigate the impact of new professional sporting teams on community engagement and the development of a committed supporter base. This study, a collaboration between leading management and marketing researchers from the universities of Melbourne, Griffith, Deakin, and Monash, is the first comprehensive examination of the relationship between the introduction of new professional teams and the impact those teams have on individual fan development and overall community wellbeing. The researchers anticipate that it will open up a rich vein of mixed methodological scientific inquiry.
With the establishment of two new teams in the Gold Coast and Western Sydney, in both cases communities with no previous loyalty to or understanding of Australian Rules football, no existing supporter base to speak of, and fierce competition from rival local and global sporting codes, the AFL hopes to grow the indigenous game by attracting a host of new fans from entirely new markets.
“Obviously there is risk attached to such a large-scale experiment,” says Professor Simon Bell of the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne. “The introduction of new professional sporting teams is costly and requires substantial infrastructural support.
“But from a purely research point of view, the introduction of two new AFL teams in non-traditional markets over the next four years provides a very rare opportunity to study these impacts in a longitudinal manner, and empirically test leading theories.”
And because of the staggered launch of the two new teams – Gold Coast will enter the league at the start of the 2011 season, while Greater Western Sydney’s entrance will not be until 2012 – the research can likewise adopt a two-phase approach.
“In the first phase, the project will document and measure changes occurring as a result of the Gold Coast launch,” explains Professor Bell, “then the information from phase one will be applied to the Western Sydney market to investigate what intervention is possible to facilitate the growth of a stronger supporter base and enhanced community engagement.”
Project researchers will also explore the as-yet unexamined theoretical argument that the introduction of a new sporting team into a community has not only an economic impact, but an equally important social impact. This includes increases in community involvement (playing, officiating, spectating, volunteering, socialising), promotion of healthy, active lifestyles, and improved community image and pride.
“Because of the high investment associated with launching a new team, particularly in a previously untried market, substantial resources are required from government, local business and individual community members. This aspect of the study is therefore critical to evaluating and properly leveraging the value of such investment in new teams,” says Professor Bell.
With some recent failures, notably the Brisbane Bullets and Sydney Kings from the NBL, the New Zealand Knights from the A-league, and the entire Australian Rugby Championship teams in 2007, research which looks at the reasons why such failures occur and can identify and monitor the effectiveness of a range of associated marketing activities is both timely and beneficial.
“There is also of course the experience of the successful establishment of the Sydney Swans and the Brisbane Lions into alien territory,” says Professor Bell, “but it’s now some time since they were transplanted from Melbourne.”
The case studies provided by both the Gold Coast and Western Sydney are different in that they will be entirely new teams, building entirely new stadiums and community resources, and attempting to attract fans to a sporting code previously foreign to them.