The NRL’s COVID-19 playbook

| April 30, 2020

Across NSW and Queensland, the opening rounds of the 2020 National Rugby League (NRL) season boasted stadiums packed full of sport fans.

The throngs of spectators who descended on Bankwest and Townsville’s Country Bank Stadiums stood in stark contrast to empty grounds across the rest of the globe. A football game attended by 40,000 in Bergamo in Italy served as a frightening example of how sporting events can act as a petri dish for the virus.

Closer to home, the T20 Women’s World Cup final at the MCG saw a record crowd of 86,174 people became a coronavirus exposure site although professional leagues and teams across Europe and the USA were already in lockdown, and match suspensions and cancelations had already taken effect.

Again Australian sport in general and the NRL in particular look set to buck global trends. One of the last leagues to suspend their season, the NRL will likely be one of, if not the first, to recommence play. With the finer details of recommencement sitting in the hands of Federal and State Chief Medical Officers, the code has maintained a steadfast commitment to recommencing their season.

The 28th of May looms large as their kickoff goal. While the sounds of cheering crowds will be some time off, the NRL could find themselves in a unique position.

First mover advantage

As sport leagues and teams aggressively compete to attract spectators, deepen fan ties and secure membership revenue, the NRL could have a powerful monopoly. The COVID-19 hiatus means that sport fans of all codes and teams have been starved of their weekly sport fix.

If the NRL can get “Project Apollo” off the ground as planned they can bring their product to a less congested domestic sport marketplace. While the AFL has signaled its own return plans, they are decidedly more tentative and likely to follow the recommendations of an upcoming National Cabinet meeting.

League commentators argue the NRL’s COVID-19 return plans led by Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys underpin his commitment to the code. He sees himself as an aspirational leader, strategist and innovator at the helm during a period of unprecedented disruption and uncertainty.

While marketing strategists report the benefits of a head start arising from first mover advantage, there are complexities and risks associated with V’landys’ innovation committee’s moves. For instance, while sometimes a first mover advantage can be useful, it very much depends on surrounding circumstances and how this edge on competitors has been achieved.

The NRL may be able to capitalise on the global vacuum in sports content and gain new international and domestic fans. Recent announcements postponing other sport include the end of the French Football and Rugby seasons for this year, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announcing that due to the coronavirus pandemic “the 2019-20 season of professional sport … won’t be able to resume”.

For the rest of Europe, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has set a May 25th deadline for domestic leagues to present their plans to restart their seasons or cancel them all together.

While on paper the restart to the season will see the NRL occupy a strategic position, will the NRL be able to execute their plans without a scandal? If there is a misstep then the early return could become a PR nightmare and provide helpful “what not to do” advice for other sporting codes, giving them an advantage in the longer term.

Claims that players will be safer under the NRL’s protocols may sound hollow after the latest scandal with players caught disregarding social distancing as well as other laws. The strategy is decidedly risky.

Challenges and complexity

Empty stadiums void of spectators means that home advantage will tend to be lost. No longer cheered on by legions of fans, the athletes will hear little more than the echo of referee whistles and coaches calls. As a result, the all important television spectacle will inevitably be affected. A background of empty seats does not transfer well to television. While technologies may be employed to generate background noise and allied images, authenticity is inevitably lost.

So, while first mover status has distinct advantages, there are also challenges and potential costs. One key question among many is how the market will take the NRL’s return. Our prior research has explored the relationship between corporate social responsibility and brand.

In reference to professional sport organisations, our research illuminated how the purchase intentions and team support of consumers and fans were mediated by the perceived contribution which professional leagues and teams make within their communities. Overwhelmingly professional sport organisations were expected to take on the role of social anchors within their communities. These efforts were found to preserve as well as reinforce community relations.

Through the COVID-19 lockdown, the NRL and other professional codes have maintained radio silence about their community responsibilities. In contrast, during the recent bushfire crisis, professional sport teams and leagues across the country used their high profile and broad reach to appeal for support among bushfire ravaged communities.

Professional sport organisations have also sought to influence Australia’s attitudes and practices in other ways in recent times.  Through its social impact reporting, for example, the NRL claims that “The NRL is a powerful vehicle for change. Our aim is to unite communities to lead and inspire people to be the best they can be, by providing pathways and opportunities to live positive, respectful and healthy lives”.

Yet, neither the league or many of its individual athletes seem invested in taking social distancing seriously and setting a positive example for their fans. When the federal government initially experienced challenges enforcing the serious need for social distancing there were no moves among Australian leagues to use their appeal and reach to support the governments pleas.

As the federal government launches its COVID-19 tracing app the NRL still remains largely mute on the broader health, social and economic challenges gripping the nation. Rather than prioritise the use of their platform for social good, the NRL is considering its own tracing app to pursue its own clear commercial imperative.

The NRL app forms part of a wider plan to get Australian sport fans back into the stadiums. While social distancing would still be enforced, the NRL app would apparently appeal to hard core supporters by offering a place in a ballot for fans who self-isolated for 14 days to attend later season fixtures such as the State of Origin.

If they are not motivated by social good, the sports codes might also do the right thing to support their own commercial outcomes, particularly among youth markets whose buying intentions are increasingly underpinned by company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agendas.

Perhaps the NRL and professional sport strategists might take a leaf out of Craig Foster’s playbook. Through the COVID-19 crisis and sport suspension, the former soccer player and current SBS pundit has led a ‘Play for Lives’ not for points campaign firmly committed to using sport as a vehicle for social solidarity.

As sport begins to realise its place in the “new normal”, a better balance between commerce and social good could see the NRL not only survive the current crisis, but thrive in the post-COVID future.

This article was written by Dr Michelle O’Shea and Dr Sarah Duffy, a Lecturer in Hospitality, Marketing and Sport at Western Sydney University.