What’s the connection between the Australian Open and Donald Trump?
Well, not much other than the fact that the tennis tournament and Trump’s inauguration both occurred during the same week in mid-January or that Nick Kyrgios sported an anti-Trump t-shirt the week before.
Maybe it’s the mentality that if you can’t beat them, then build you own damned league!
The BBC Sportshour program, covered the rise and fall of the ambitious, but sadly now defunct United States Football League in the 1980’s. The segment pondered whether one powerful businessman, might have been responsible for bringing down an entire league.
Success factors for professional sport
The Australian Open has gone from strength to strength, as the Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific, offloading AUD$50 million in combined prize money to the winners and losers. Parents dream that their kids will excel in a sporting code that brings in the dough, rather than one that labours in the field of low recognition and limited sponsorship, even if you’re the best in the world at it.
So what makes the successful sporting code? There’s no simple answer, nor complete list… but here’s an attempt to navigate some of that minefield.
1. Summer versus winter – finding the gap in the market
In a crowded calendar, a code needs to pitch itself as the ideal sport for a particular season. Cricket, tennis and baseball are lengthy, slow-paced events, that are family and sunshine friendly. Various football codes tend to dominate the winters – impassioned allegiances to a team providing talking points to get people through the dreary winters.
A new code needs to compete for airtime and what’s left in the wallets of the sport loving, spectator base.
Smartly, the USFL had pitched itself for the summer season to avoid rights issues with the dominant National Football League. Yet Trump – who bought ownership of the New Jersey Generals – fought to bring the league into the winter, to compete directly against the established and powerful NFL. Whether or not this was linked to the demise of the USFL, which occurred the following year, is still open for debate.
2. Tell a story – Talking points and complexity
Baseball has built a brilliant mythology, thanks to great novelists and Hollywood movies. It has derived universal appeal through being a statistically complex game, with multiple strategic angles.
Tennis is a mentally captivating sport, with constant swings in momentum and it’s thrillingly possible for a player to come back from match point down.
A new code needs to find fans who understand and can sell its intrigue and what makes it unique.
Fierce rivalries are the magical ingredient in any sport. Raise the emotional stakes and keep your fans hooked. Rivalries make headlines. Headlines grow a brand.
Attracting sponsorship is incredibly difficult, but the trick that’s missed is neglecting the relationship once the sponsorship has been secured. Sponsors want bang for their buck, yet most of them find that there are too many restrictions and it’s virtually impossible to leverage their investment.
Media guru Simon Rutherford puts this down to the fact that in many codes, the sponsorship teams aren’t aligned to the marketing divisions.
5. Don’t get greedy
The USFL’s push to grow too quickly – from 12 teams to 18 – in the first three years of the league’s inception, was seen to be another key reason for the league’s failure. Building identity and loyalty takes time. It’s dangerous to split your attention too far and wide.
6. Poor choice of location
Gold Coast journalists ponder whether their sunshine city is a graveyard for any sporting franchise that dares to build a base there. It can be a tough choice for team-based sports. Dynamics of the Gold Coast include a transient population, competing activities (beach, theme parks) and inability to build teams that can guarantee on-field success.
Even the big codes keep taking the same gamble and thinking that brawn and dollars can compel the impossible.
Building a support base for a sport or a team, is no mean feat. In a world where sport is now business, there are so many competing priorities, that the very aspects that make sport compelling – rivalries, competition, entertainment, community and identity – don’t get a chance.
This article hopefully provides some ammo and direction for those local and pioneering sporting leagues, already braving the fight for a share of audience and minds.