On Friday, I had the pleasure of talking to Heather Reid and Russ Gibbs at Canberra United. 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 United, they are a W-League team based out of Canberra. Unlike other teams in the W-League, they do not share a name or facilities with an A-League club. Most of the funding and general support for the W-League comes from state based football associations. This support insures a certain degree of financial stability that they might not be able to afford otherwise. Some players in the league are paid but many are not. The W-League was created in order to foster high levels of competition that could feed Australia’s women’s national football team, the Matildas. The league intentionally schedules their games around the Matilda’s schedules to avoid conflicts for players. This has been successful in that many of the Matildas that played in the AFC championship played for W-League, three of whom play for the Canberra United. The Canberra United have the highest average attendance of any team in the league, with over 1,000 people attending home matches.
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 research out there about sport fandom defines it differently depending on your relationship to it. Sport marketing and management literature tends to define fans and fandom as spectatorship or viewers. Sport sociologist and historians tend to define fandom as identity that is sustained over longer periods of time. Newspapers and fans themselves tend to define fandom as identity coupled with actions to express that. I was interested to see how a team would define that. In the case of the Canberra United, they define fandom for their team based on spectatorship. In the case of spectatorship, it is not a wide definition of any possible fans but rather a subset of people they have identified as having the highest potential to attend their games. The group that the team has decided to target is the female players in Capital Football, the ACT’s state soccer organization. This is a group that the team feels would turn out to see the games as they are already interested in soccer, have knowledge of the club, and may dream of playing on that level or for the Matildas. It is also easy to target as the team has access to Capital Football’s membership list. They can easily send out e-mails to the members before a game to encourage them to attend and after a game to let them know the results.
Beyond that population, the club also hopes to attract an audience of general football fans located in the ACT. The Canberra United are the highest level of soccer in the territory and play during the summer, when there are fewer sport options for people to watch. When watching the team, fans have the potential to see future and current Matilidas, something that they might not otherwise have a chance to see regularly.
Most of the outreach that the team does involves reaching out through Capital Football. They have a database of members which makes this easy to access this population. Beyond that, they do outreach through sponsor related events. Their major form of outreach beyond those two venues involves their website: canberraunited.com.au. The site includes information about the W-League, the team and local Canberra football clubs. When shown data regarding how the club ranked on Alexa compared to A-League clubs, they were pleased. W-League sites, with the exception of the Canberra United, are hosted as subpages inside A-League sites. It is not possible to use publicly available data to distinguish between different pages. Using Alexa, the Canberra United ranked 52,076 in Australia. This compares to 50,430 for the Adelaide United, 60,807 for the Central Coast Mariners and 26,091 for the Sydney Football Club. The Canberra United outperformed two teams, are about even with one, and are behind three teams. This comparatively high rank happened when the team is not playing and against A-League sites that have a bigger attendance draw than the Canberra United. In addition to the website, the team has ventured some into social media with an official presence on Facebook, where they have 460 fans. When we looked through a list of networks that their followers belonged to, they were able to explain pretty much every network on the list. The team has a Twitter account but they do not actively maintain it. In the future, they plan to grow their social media presence.
The club has a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to making decisions regarding how to promote their team in their own market and online. The W-League has their own promotions that are intended at promoting the league as a whole and the Canberra United participate in those promotional events. The club also has some guidance from Capital Football. Still, there is no indication that there are a lot of restrictions regarding how the club goes about promoting themselves. The W-League does not have a formal policy regarding social media usage for its clubs or players in the league. Canberra United also does not have such a policy as it has not been an issue so far. Senator Kate Lundy is involved with the Canberra United and is keenly interested in social media and the law. She is apparently helping the club think about the legal implications involved with this issue.
The team is aware of what other teams and some of the other leagues in Australia are doing. They were able to discuss how the AFL handled things compared to the NRL, and were willing to speculate as to how each league would handle certain situations. They are also aware of what is going on with the Socceroos and the Matildas. However, they did not know if the FFA had official policies regarding player usage of social media. This was interesting in that player usage has been an issue the media has paid attention to in the run up to the World Cup, with the US allowing players to use social media but England banning players from using it. The team appeared to be more aware of other Australian leagues than they were of how international footballing bodies handled social media and marketing related issues.
Several other things were discussed that are not easy to categorize as part of the four questions. These were rather interesting. The team is aware of the major blogs and message boards that cover their team. One of these included Girls With Game, http://girlswithgame.blogspot.com/ . Another was Capital Punishment, http://capitalpunishment.forumotion.net/canberra-united-w-league-f3/ . It sounded like they monitor them to see what people are saying. They were not as aware of the Wikipedia article about themselves. They did find it thorough and assumed that some of content was generated by finding information from their site.
Another issue discussed was the marketing of the W-League. If you’ve been to their site or seen some of their promotional pictures, the players look like models with their hair done and wearing lots of makeup. This was originally done as the W-League was aiming for a teenaged girl audience and because some in the league believe that sex sells. Players were given the option of it they wanted to be photographed like that and participate in a sponsor-related event where they were asked to model clothes. There was a question of “Was that sexist?” The team told me that the players did not necessarily feel that it was because they were given a choice and they were portrayed positively. Some of them considered it very feminist in that they could be high level athletes who are also capable of being beautiful women.
One issue I brought up was the issue of being female fanspace. I referenced a study done involving the WNBA and how lesbians carved out their own space and definition of the league as being lesbian friendly. This happened in a space that is not obviously queer space and is shared equally by other groups that a team might have greater incentive to maintain. I asked how this type of issue was handled inside the W-League. According to the Canberra United, part of the early marketing attempts by the W-League were to counter stereotypes of female athletes as lesbians by using advertising that played up on the players’ femininity with the modeling type pictures. I was also led to believe that this was an ongoing issue with women’s sports defined as pinks vs. ponytails, where some teams and players have gone out of their way to identify one way or another. My impression of what they said was that this was a regular battle of how to be as inclusive as possible while realizing that certain segments are not going to be very tolerant of each other.
In conclusion, the Canberra United use a definition of sport similar to those described by sports marketers. The only caveat is that they more narrowly define spectator to specific populations they are intentionally targeting. The club has a great deal of freedom to define their target audience and create their own social media policies. Most of the team’s influence for how to handle marketing and social media policies comes from within Australia.
In preparation for talking with the Canberra United, I completed an overview of the size of the online community for the team. It can be found at : http://ozziesport.com/Canberra_United.pdf