An interview with Ben Pollack from the Canberra Raiders

This entry was posted by Laura on Thursday, 24 June, 2010 at

On Wednesday, June 23, 2010, I had the pleasure of talking to Ben Pollack and another staff member at the Canberra Raider.  I really appreciated the opportunity to talk to them as it was provided additional insight into how sport clubs view fandom and social media. I’ve tried to convey as accurately as possible what they have told me based on my memory and I asked their permission to reference them in my blog and paper while I met with them.

If you’re not familiar with the Canberra Raiders, they are a Rugby League team that competes at the top level in the National Rugby League in Australia.  They are based in Australia’s capital, Canberra, and play their home games at Bruce Stadium.  The NRL has a profit sharing scheme, where revenues are shared between all teams.

My purpose in talking to them was to help provide background knowledge for my literature review and to generally enhance my understanding of Australian team sport as it may apply other parts of my research.  Going in, I had four questions I wanted answers to.  These questions were:

1. How do you define fandom?
2. How do you reach out to the fan community?
3. How much influence does league management provide in terms of defining fandom and how to engage in outreach?  Do they give guidance on social media policies?
4. How much do other sports, teams and leagues play a role in development and implementation of concepts related to fan engagement and social media?

The Canberra Raiders define fandom very broadly as people who barrack for them and who attend games.  Their goal is to have this definition encompass all ages, both genders and across the demographic spectrum.  They focus on the Canberra area. They want to take interest in the club and translate that into getting people into the stadium, with bums on seats.  They did not mention trying to get fans to watch on television or buy their merchandise.  It may be something that they define as fandom but I did not follow up to ask about that.

When I inquired about the regional aspect in the NRL helping teams by enabling them to develop a local fanbase, they said that this worked a lot in their favor as the Canberra area was very supportive of the team.  This may not be as true for some of the Sydney based teams where there is much more market overlap and a few teams play at the same venue.  There, clubs need to market more towards traditional understandings of who composes their fanbase.  Sydney based teams are much like many of the Melbourne based AFL clubs in this regard.

I had some data from Facebook that said that there were roughly twice as many UCanberra students and alumni who were fans of the club compared to ANU.  I asked them why their fanbase was stronger at the University of Canberra, if it had to do with different cultures or possibly class related affiliations that each university has.  The club responded that they thought they probably had more fans at UC because the university has a well-known sport program and tends to attract more sport fans than ANU.

I had some bebo related geographic data.  It showed that there were a number of fans from the Brisbane area.  I asked the Raiders if they could explain that.  They told me that this geographic fanbase dates to the club’s founding, when several of the players came from Brisbane.  The club has managed to maintain this fanbase in Queensland over time.

The club primarily reaches out to their fanbase using traditional advertising: Newspapers, television and mail outs.  They have a member list and every week they send out a newsletter to their members.  The newsletter contains injury information, game summaries and information on any special deals that the club has.  They do some outreach on social media, but that is primarily confined to Facebook.

The NRL is a huge influence in how the club handles their website and their social media.  The league requires that clubs post certain types of web and video content every week.  This includes a match report and the post-game press conference.  The NRL has incentivized clubs to try to draw traffic to their websites; at the end of the season, revenues earned by the clubs on their sites are distributed to the clubs.  According to the Raiders, the league brought in Bernie Mullin to help it develop a plan regarding their online activities.  The NRL also guides clubs by encouraging them to push to increase their membership.  Some of this push is based around the idea of local clubs and increasing attendance at local grounds and keeping that local identity.

The Canberra Raiders thus use social media as a way to drive traffic to their site.  Based on our conversation, I did not get the feeling that using social media to develop a fanbase was a goal unto itself.  Rather, I was left with the impression that social media was a tool to drive traffic to their site to help increase their revenue.

The NRL does watch other leagues to see what they are doing in terms of social media.  The Raiders do less of this and spend less time developing their own social media strategy.  This is largely because the Raiders feel the NRL has better resources and more money to handle this.  The Raiders also do not have much time to do this on their own.

One of the major areas where the team has acted regarding social media is in giving in their players training in the use of social media training.  The Australian Federal Police conducted this training.  Details about the training can be found on the club’s website at www.raiders.com.au/default.aspx?s=article-display&id=27038 .  This was something the club felt was important because a number of their players are on Facebook.  Some have 2,000 to 3,000 friends, many of whom they do not know personally.  There have been a number of high profile incidents involving players getting negative media attention as a result of their comments on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter; they want to avoid that.  In general, the club advises players to be careful, not to talk about the team and to keep things personal.  The club does not ban the use of it and the NRL is aware of these problems and is encouraging training.

After getting my questions answered, I asked the Raiders about specific aspects of their social media strategy and asked the club if they had any questions based on the data packet I had provided.  The club does have an official Facebook page and Twitter account.  Ben is most familiar with Facebook, which is one of the reasons they use it more than Twitter.  The club’s original Facebook strategy involved creating a user account, friending people and trying to convert these friends into fans of the official fanpage.  The conversion rate was very low and they did not find it very effective in accomplishing their goals.

They are not entirely certain how Twitter fits into their social media strategy and there is a question of how they chose people to follow.  (Compared to other teams in the NRL, they follow almost no one.)  They were interested in increasing their number of followers but were not certain how to do it.  They also did not think that anyone had replied to them or reTweeted them, though this could be a result of not being familiar enough with the site.

We also discussed Foursquare and Gowalla, how they were used and if it was worth it for the team to explore using them.  They were unsure in this regard, as their time is limited.  If it is the next big thing, it might be worth them investigating.

I asked the club about their web traffic, citing some traffic data from Compete.  They said that a number of teams in the NRL share names with other sport teams.  In the case of the Canberra Raiders, it is the Oakland Raiders.  During the season for the other team, they often see an increase in traffic from US based visitors who mistakenly find their site.

I asked if the club had considered using YouTube.  They had.  One of their ideas involved uploading preview clips to Youtube, with attached notices that the full clip could be viewed on their site. They were not certain of the potential ROI and in the end did not use it.  I then asked them if visitors could embed official Raiders videos on their own blogs.  They were not certain but said that fans could definitely link to their videos.

While social media is a big potential audience for the club, most of their dedicated fans online congregate on a message board not controlled by the club.  They do monitor it and find it occasionally to be a concern because of that lack of control.  The club is aware of the fact that the media also monitor this message board and occasionally use it to generate less than favorable story ideas about the site.

In preparation for talking with the Canberra Raiders, I completed an overview of the size of the online community for the team.  If you are interested in this document, please contact me at laura[@]fanhistory[dot]com or my university e-mail address, [email protected]

One of their ideas involved uploading preview clips to Youtube, with attached notices that the full clip could be viewed on their site.  I then asked them if visitors could embed official Raiders videos on their own blogs.

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  • http://SportsGeek.com.au Sean Callanan

    Thanks for the article Laura, my main issue with the Raider's approach to social media is the lack of official links from the web site to the fan page. Just some errors in execution and implementation. They are still linking to Friend profile rather than Fan page.

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