It seems strange that it has taken until 2013 for Australia’s biggest club competition to venture off-shore for a competitive game, but that is what happened last week when St Kilda played the Sydney Swans in Wellington on ANZAC Day.
This was the first game following a three year deal between the Wellington City Council and St Kilda Football Club. On the whole it was a resounding, if not emphatic success. Over 4000 Australians crossed the Tasman and over 18,000 locals turned up to watch something totally new.
It was a risky project alright. Aussie Rules has no history here with a very limited and social playing base. No locals were involved, the rules, or lack of them, are not instinctive to understand and it takes a while to get used to the 70s shorts / singlets outfits.
The choice of St Kilda as the home club does not add a huge amount of glamour either; isn’t that a suburb of Dunedin?
But where the promoters got it right was the way this project was marketed.
There is more to marketing than just advertising, and the build-up to this event was over a long period of time.
First of all, the St Kilda players came over in early February for some gala days, an exhibition match, and a mass coaching day. Plenty of media coverage and the initiation of a scouting programme.
Then the advertising started. The emphasis was on the uniqueness of the occasion, and how it was family friendly.
As it happened, the one area where things could have been better was the family friendly angle; an 8pm kick-off for a match that nudges three hours in duration meant that it wasn’t ideal for children. However there are Australian TV overlords and a 90,000 traditional Collingwood / Essendon fixture to fit in there.
The pricing was the key, and the promoters got this right. Adult tickets started at $20, and the prime seats were $40. There were decent student concessions and the maximum price for a child was $9
There were reports of John Morrison going around club rugby venues the Saturday before the game handing out tickets. That is not as silly as it sounds; spread the message to sports viewing inclined people, knowing they would spend a bit once there.
This policy meant that the crowd was over 22,000; a week after the Hurricanes attracted a third of that and on the back of the worst Phoenix attendance record in its history. These are not great times to take a punt (geddit?) but if you pay attention to detail it can work.
Come game day, there were various not-so-spontaneous flash-mobs around town in the build-up to the match. At the game itself extra effort had been put into the programmes. A large glossy publication with plenty of information on the rules of the game, the history of the competition and the teams taking part.
It was a Collectors’ item type publication. The price? $2. Clever; they will be being read in suburban houses around Wellington for the next year.
But wait; there’s more. The following day Lambton Quay was full of well-heeled middle aged couple wearing St Kilda scarves carrying Country Road shopping bags in a sea of irony. Not a bad way to neutralise the balance of payments ledger. And there were still St Kilda scarf wearers hanging around the following week.
And across town there was a family day at the Basin which attracted more than 2,000 people. Players giving autographs to wide eyed children, giving interviews to the media while off to one side some serious scouting was going on.
That was serious too. Porirua teenager Joe Baker-Thomas became the first New Zealander to receive an international rookie scholarship from St Kilda. A classic win-win there. St. Kilda now have the chance to tap into a large previously ignored talent pool of young players.
And, without wanting to sound cynical, if Baker-Thomas was to make the cut, then that would provide a huge boost for the on-going marketability of this event. There is nothing surer than a big feature on his progress in the Dominion Post in, say, March of next year.
Remember, these people are in for the long haul.