The business of sport can be fickle beast as management can often find difficulty in keeping the supporter base onside while also pursuing the goal of profit.
It is, indeed, not unusual for the wishes of supporters to clash with what, from a business perspective, is best for a particular organisation. Ergo, what to do? Or, more accurately, how are these conflicts best reconciled?
The focal point of a professional sporting club is to define itself in a crowded marketplace, not only against competitors in the same competition, but against other sporting codes, and even other forms of entertainment.
The Western Sydney Wanderers form a perfect case study of a sporting club which defined itself as a community organisation rather than a business. Upon being granted a licence to participate in the Hyundai A-League by Football Federation Australia (FFA), this random club from Western Sydney set about consulting heavily within the community on everything. It’s home, colours, name and, therefore, entire identity lay in the hands of the new supporter base.
Although run as a business, this opening up of identity allowed the Wanderers to identify as more a community organisation than professional business of any description, with ownership of the club, although legally lying with the FFA, perceived to be in the hands of the supporters. This laid the platform for record attendances which parlayed into early on field success, creating a spiral of success.
Contrast this with another Western Sydney sporting club, the Greater Western Sydney Giants in the Australian Football League (AFL). While the Wanderers identity was totally left to the community at large, the Giants are entirely a creation of the AFL. No consultation, no public campaign, nothing until the organisation was established under guidance from the AFL.
At this point it is worth noting that the Giants wear orange, black and white as their playing strip, the same colours as the Wests Tigers of the National Rugby League (NRL), who play games within the catchment the Giants are seeking to infiltrate.
This indicates, on the part of the AFL, a calculated bid to undermine the presence of a rugby league club in Western Sydney and tap into their supporter base. However, while this has led to an increase year on year in average attendance, the Giants had the lowest average attendance of any AFL team during the 2017 season. In establishing the Giants as a club which seemed to be a stalking horse for the AFL in infiltrating rugby league heartland, it allowed the club to be lost in the sporting diaspora of Western Sydney, which is enveloped, at a junior level, by an almost smothering presence of football and rugby league.
It is this junior presence which brings us to the third club of interest in this case study, the NRL’s Wests Tigers. While the Wanderers supporters chose the identity of the club as a whole, and the Giants had their identity foisted on them by the AFL, the Wests Tigers found themselves stuck in the middle. A joint venture partnership between the Western Suburbs (Wests) Magpies and the Balmain Tigers, the new club is still seeking to establish an identity after 18 years in the competition. This comes about due to a geographical diversity in the heritage of both constituent clubs and economic realities of the current competition.
Western Suburbs was originally an Ashfield based club, where the wealthy and powerful Wests Ashfield Leagues Club is located, before relocating to Lidcombe for two decades and then to the Macarthur region, which has now been home for 30 years. While Balmain was based at Birchgrove before finding a permanent home at Leichhardt Oval, the joint venture has been forced to play home games at both Allianz Stadium and ANZ Stadium due to commercial opportunities offered by each venue, with ANZ Stadium reportedly paying NRL clubs $100,000 to play home games as an incentive.
This split between venues has seen Wests Tigers unable to properly identify themselves in the saturated marketplace that is Sydney rugby league. The Wests side of the joint venture is split between the demographic base in Campbelltown and the emotional attachment to Lidcombe, while the financial heart of the club lies in inner west Ashfield, only a few kilometres from Balmain’s spiritual home of Leichhardt. While Wests Tigers might have many options available to it in terms of choosing an identity, the failure to establish a geographical base leaves the club in a precarious position in recruiting a new generation of tribal fans, instead reliant on those who find appeal in the club’s colours or mascot.
These three sporting organisations all have vastly different narratives at their core, and this explains how proper management of a club’s identity can have a lasting impact on the business element of the club.
The Western Sydney Wanderers eschewed the business identity and, in doing so, carved out a new niche in what has fast become a corporate sporting world, far removed from the traditions of a generation ago when ethnic enclaves ruled football on Australia’s east coast.
The AFL, though, has veered wildly towards a sterile, almost bland, view of the future, with a league run franchise operating with little regard for a fan base it once coveted, choosing instead to pursue popular imagery rather than grassroots supporters, resulting in a struggling product being promoted in a sporting market already overpopulated.
Wests Tigers has steered a course through both extremes, although this has been borne by history rather than any semblance of strategic planning insofar as management remains hamstrung by duelling histories.
While each club tells a different story of their existence, they each demonstrate the successes, failures and uncertainties that can come from properly, or improperly managing to define a clear identity in the marketplace, be it business or sport, although in modern times it is difficult to tell in the professional sporting landscape where the sport stops and the business assumes control.
Keith Topolski is the media manager for the Western Suburbs Magpies in the NSW Rugby League and is the Wests Tigers’ NRL ground announcer. A regular guest commentator on Sydney’s Triple H 100.1FM and Radio Northern Beaches 88.7FM, his professional background is in media and politics including more than six years as a media advisor.