As six NRL clubs slipped into the glare of the Australian Crime Commission’s spotlight this week, so too did their parent league. The fate of clubs like the North Queensland Cowboys, Manly Sea Eagles and Newcastle Knights in the days and weeks ahead will have a bearing on public perceptions of the National Rugby League.
The NRL’s leadership — or lack of leadership — during the fallout from the ACC investigations will also have a major bearing on fans’ perceptions of its member clubs — not only those under investigation – and their likelihood to attend games and emotionally commit during the forthcoming season.
This connection between the parent league and its member clubs may seem the most obvious of links but it is one that has not been academically investigated or established previously.
A Gold Coast-based researcher at Griffith University’s Department of Tourism, Sport and Hotel Management has now confirmed the major influence a parent league has on its constituent clubs, and vice versa.
Fans of the NRL, AFL, A-League and English Premier League participated in the four-year research project, which involved in-depth interviews, two online questionnaires eliciting more than 1600 responses and consultation with online A-League fan forums which involved 420 respondents.
Online fan forums
The final stage of the research focused solely on soccer’s A-League where Dr Thilo Kunkel engaged with online fan forums around Australian to study the influence of the A-League on clubs and how this influence extended to the consumers’ perception of the teams in the league.
The attitudes of fans were studied in relation to the league and in relation to the team, as was the social acceptability of supporting a team, and the fan’s capacity — through time and money — to support their team by attending their games.
“The first major finding of the research is the strong influence a league has on the marketing and strategic brand management of teams in that league,” German-native, Dr Kunkel, says. “The league has a major bearing on the attitude of fans towards teams within the league.
“If a league is going well, its teams tend to go well. If the league is not going so well, the teams tend not to go so well. The connection works the other way too. Teams are representative of their league, notably when they do well.
“By the same token a scandal around a team or an individual player within a team has a bearing on the league and, by extension, on the rest of the teams in the league.
“This may come be borne out during the weeks ahead as teams are publicly scrutinised in relation to drugs and corruption in sport. The intrinsic connection means the league and other member teams will be impacted if one or more teams are in the news for the wrong reasons.
“The second major finding of my research is that it is very important for a league to provide a brand framework and brand alignment structure for the teams in the league. The teams can build and market themselves using this, while also establishing their own brand by differentiating themselves from other teams and building their own unique identity.
“The third significant finding shows the league has a major influence on attitudes towards teams and whether fans attend club games. The league plays a big part in this through its strategic involvement in areas like match schedules, stadium lease contracts, and guidelines on how teams should treat their fan bases.
“The league needs to guide its teams’ match-day management and marketing. The teams need to not only make it convenient and affordable for people to attend a game but also communicate this to their fans. This will boost game attendance, which will help both the teams and the league.”