The AFL will be anxious about whether crowds will return in numbers once the competition resumes. (AAP: Michael Dodge)
Professional sports clubs are doing what is forbidden in public and using their mailing lists to “reach out”.
If you are a club member your inbox will now be filled with personalised letters from club officials pledging their support in these difficult times and asking for your continued loyalty.
A typical line from the many emails I have received: “Bluntly, we are nothing without you, a fact we have never forgotten at (insert club’s name) but one that has been reinforced by the events of recent weeks.”
Correspondence from other clubs has been similarly earnest and thoughtful. But as much as an act of kindness, these messages are a commercial imperative.
According to popular assumption, once the coronavirus curve is flattened and the gates of the sports stadiums swing open it will be viewing as usual.
Some pundits cite Great Depression-era examples to make optimistic predictions that professional sport will be even more popular post-coronavirus, as it was post-crash when thousands flocked to see Phar Lap and Don Bradman.
The solid viewing numbers for classic footy matches replayed on various TV networks, YouTube clips of great sporting moments and online blogs of virtual games provide some indication the cravings of sport-deprived fans are strong.
But there is one scenario no doubt playing on sports officials minds: What if the fans whose viewing habits have subsidised the enormous growth in professional sports spending don’t return to the grandstands or to their screens in the same numbers as before?
As any first-year business student can tell you, allowing a customer to flirt with alternatives is fraught with danger. And as the isolation continues, surely there is at least some possibility we will find that — contrary to long-held belief — there is more to life than sport.
Who knows, maybe those quiet socially-isolated weekend walks with family are proving a palatable alternative to the anxiety of a close finish in a packed stadium made almost intolerable by the ear-splitting noise of fan engagement.
But even if our appetite for sport remains voracious the cost of attendance has risen sharply over the years for families who might now consider club membership a discretionary item rather than a necessity.
As we’ve observed previously, AFL clubs particularly have come perilously close to shaming supporters into purchasing membership over the past 25 years with campaigns that created the underlying assumption that “You are not a real supporter if you are not a member”.
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The subsequent upselling of reserved seats and various gold and platinum packages that guaranteed AFL grand final tickets if your club fielded one of the two out of 18 teams to make it have provided a substantial revenue stream.
Most sports can argue they have provided decent value for money in comparison with other forms of live entertainment (unless you include stadium food prices) such as concerts and theatre.
Both NRL and AFL clubs are doing callouts to supporters for financial assistance. (Supplied: Sydney Roosters)
But how many members will now opt for a cheaper general admission ticket or even prefer to stay and watch at home?
This second option could benefit the media rights-holders who enjoyed a very brief surge in audiences during the fan-free games that preceded the postponement of the AFL and NRL.
But the absence of live sport now has, according to The Guardian, prompted significant cancellation of Foxtel and Kayo Sports subscriptions putting a business already challenged by rival streaming services under enormous pressure.
How many in a depressed economy will immediately resume their once standard every-game viewing habits and again take up the pay-per-view subscriptions that, in turn, provide a significant portion of sports cashflow?
In safeguarding this revenue model the clubs have a big role to play in maintaining a strong relationship with members even as they remain in competitive limbo.
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This requires a delicate balance in which signalling their own financial distress must be tempered with an appreciation of the struggles many fans are enduring.
Clubs must master the PR game
The most awkward task for clubs now “reaching out” is acknowledging the right to discounts or refunds on current memberships, while hoping to retain as much pre-paid cash as possible — even if a severely truncated or abandoned season means most non-redeemed memberships will be virtual donations.
None of the correspondence I have seen from clubs to members explicitly mentions refunds, although one declared it was “mindful of how challenging it is, or might be, for you to uphold your commitment”.
If sports clubs are to retain the same level of membership, how they project themselves as a good citizen while others are being compelled to take painful cuts or close businesses could have a significant impact on goodwill.
NRL players will endure significant cuts to their salaries because of the impact of coronavirus. (AAP: Cameron Laird)
The public negotiations between various leagues and players’ associations over pay cuts — and, in the NRL’s case, between the league and the clubs themselves — were, at the very least, unfortunate.
The last thing sport needs as it tries to maintain the passion of people suffering severe cuts to their livelihoods is the impression that “well-paid athletes” are not prepared to share the pain.
Cricket Australia was wise to postpone the announcement of player contracts, whether this was due to uncertainty about future revenue or because revealing which players would earn seven-figure pay cheques was not a good look in the current climate.
With thousands of fit young professional athletes locked up for an extended period, athlete behaviour will also play some part in shaping public opinion on whether sport has “done its bit”.
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Without games to cover, those sections of the sports media that thrive on controversy and scandal will have an even more voracious appetite for player misbehaviour stories.
All this means your club will be desperate to let you know how much it needs you.
One of the greatest questions to be answered on the other side of this unprecedented pause is how much, in dollars and cents terms, you still need them.