A big story to emerge from the 2022 federal election result was the grassroots strength of independents, who overthrew both Liberals and Labor in historically “safe seats”.
But the woes of the major parties have extended beyond election day; They are also reflected in the terminal trajectory of party membership.
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, down from 197,000 during the more recent 1950s.
By comparison, in 2021 there were eight AFL clubs with more members than each of the two major parties. Two have more members than the two parties combined.
When factoring in population growth, the Liberal Party’s membership rate has declined since the 1950s, while AFL club membership has increased nearly eightfold since the 1980s.
So, what can major teams learn from footy clubs on how to increase community support?
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mix of sports and politics
Political parties and sports parties are actually quite similar ideologically.
Both represent a tribe of people who share a common identity, competing against other such tribes in competitions bound by formal rules – be they elections or matches.
Political parties and sports parties are not just about winning (or at least, they shouldn’t be). They nurture a broad and passionate base of supporters through collective identity.
Despite a common objective, they differ radically in their approach to attracting support.
Major political parties refer to marketers as “transactional marketing”; They largely focus on getting one sale (one vote) at a time (one election).
Such transactional approaches foster weak attachment to major political parties outside election time, making them vulnerable to changes in voter preferences.
Sports teams strive for what is known as “relational marketing”; They focus on building relationships with fans that nurture attachment and long-term loyalty.
Fostering such loyalty is crucial for sports teams to overcome the odds that come with fluctuating performances on the field.
The value of a relational approach is especially evident in times of crisis.
Despite the Essendon Bombers drug scandal being dubbed “the darkest day in Australian sport”, the club’s membership actually increased in the immediate aftermath, as supporters rallied behind the club.
Of course, treating political parties like sports teams – which fans support through thick and thin – risks encouraging poor policy; A rusty liberal or Labor supporter may find himself backing the party, even when it issues dire policies.
The game has a similar problem; Footy clubs accused of systematic fraud or even institutional racism tend to retain supporters.
I am not arguing that blind support is the norm – but rather that the success that footy clubs have found in growing membership and connecting with communities may offer some lessons for major political parties.
3 Principles of Sports Marketing
Here are three lessons that major parties can take from footy clubs.
1. Connect authentically with target communities
Brand authenticity means developing a genuine, natural, honest and genuine relationship with your constituencies.
The South Sydney Rabbitoh of the NRL launched South’s 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 similarly launched The Huddle in 2010, recognizing how the region’s particular cultural diversity underpins its goal of driving social inclusion.
Such initiatives are authentic because they are based on real communities, address genuinely local issues, and extend from a natural alignment between club and community.
This allows soccer clubs, which have grown from kitchen table organizations to commercial operations worth more than $50 million, to remain authentically embedded within the community.
2. Engage current and future supporters 365 days a year
Sports marketers maintain an essential focus on game day. But it is rooted in broader communication and community strategies aimed at achieving year-round engagement.
Non-sporting days typically represent 95% of the calendar year, so sports clubs employ communications specialists to produce media content beyond the match.
This includes player-centric interviews and biographies, match previews and debriefs, coach insights and community tours.
This type of content helps keep supporters engaged with their club between individual matches or during the off-season.
And while sports clubs tend to focus on their home sports as major business events, professional sports clubs also tend to have an extensive calendar of less obvious community events.
While a typical AFL or NRL club hosts about 12 home games in a season, they run community-oriented events – such as school visits or fan days – at least three times to promote community engagement.
3. Defining and Living an Organizational Identity
Sports teams are best known by their mascot and colors, but they are also defined by the values with which they wish to associate the brand – for example, family-oriented, pioneering, working class.
All these elements together make up the identity of a club.
Well-defined identities can inform decision making, such as Sydney Swann’s “no dickhead” team recruitment policy.
Melbourne Football Club’s core values of “Trust, Respect, Unity and Excellence” inform their off-field staff recruitment. Club identity also helps fans understand why they support a particular team over another.
While football clubs defend and develop their identities, major parties grapple with the notion that they are all “as bad as each other” – a perceived interchangeability.
By better defining their desired identity with out-of-election communities, major parties will become less dependent on campaign advertising spending wars to educate voters.
They will also be less sensitive to smear campaigns.
rewrite the gameplan
While Australia’s professional sports teams continue to describe their success in engaging communities, our major political parties are struggling to build and maintain membership.
Considering the tremendous performance of the major political parties on the last match day, perhaps it is time for them to rewrite their game plans with the help of sports marketers.
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