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The major political parties have a membership problem. Footy club marketing might offer some solutions

AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

A huge story emerging from the 2022 federal election result was the grassroots strength of independents, who dislodged both Liberal and Labor in historically “safe seats”.

But the woes of the major parties extend beyond election day; they’re also reflected in the terminal trajectory of party membership.

In 2020, the Guardian reported the Australian Labor Party has around 60,000 members. The Liberal Party is currently estimated to have around 40,000 members, down from 197,000 during the halcyon days of the 1950s.

By comparison, there were eight AFL clubs in 2021 with more members than each of the two major parties. Two have more members than both parties combined.

When factoring in population growth, the rate of Liberal Party membership has plummeted since the 1950s, while AFL club membership has grown roughly eightfold since the 1980s.

So, what can the major parties learn from footy clubs about how to grow community support?

Read more: AFL and NRL grand final TV ratings show codes still rely on their traditional heartlands

Mixing sport and politics

Political parties and sport teams are in fact quite conceptually similar.

Both represent a tribe of people who share a common identity, competing against other such tribes in contests bound by formal rules – whether they are elections or matches.

Political parties and sport teams aren’t just about winning (or at least, they shouldn’t be). At their best, they nurture a wide and passionate base of supporters through collective identity.

Despite a common purpose, they diverge fundamentally in their approaches to attracting support.

What can the major parties learn from footy clubs about how to grow community support? AAP Image/Joel Carrett

Major political parties engage in what marketers call “transactional marketing”; they largely concentrate on obtaining a sale (a vote) at a single moment in time (an election).

Such transactional approaches foster weak attachment to the major political parties outside election times, leaving them vulnerable to shifts in voter preferences.

Sport teams strive for what’s known as “relational marketing”; they concentrate on building relationships with fans that nurture attachment and longer-term loyalty.

Fostering such loyalty is vital for sport teams to ride out the bumps that come with fluctuating on-field performance.

The value of a relational approach is particularly evident in periods of crisis.

Despite the Essendon Bombers’ drug scandal being dubbed the “blackest day in Australian sport”, the club’s membership tally actually increased in the immediate aftermath, as supporters galvanised behind the club.

Of course, treating political parties like sports teams – which fans tend to support through thick and thin – risks encouraging bad policy; a rusted-on Liberal or Labor supporter may find themselves supporting the party even when it releases terrible policies.

There is a similar problem in sport; footy clubs accused of systematic cheating or even institutional racism, tend to retain supporters.

I’m not arguing blind support is ideal – but rather that the success footy clubs have found in growing membership and connecting with communities could offer some lessons for the major political parties.

3 tenets of sports marketing

Here are three key lessons the major parties could take from footy clubs.

1. Authentically connect with target communities

Brand authenticity means developing a genuine, natural, honest and real relationship with your constituencies.

The NRL’s South Sydney Rabbitohs launched Souths Cares in 2006 as a community arm with a charter to support disadvantaged and marginalised youth and families, particularly Aboriginal people in the local area.

The AFL’s North Melbourne similarly launched The Huddle in 2010, recognising how the region’s particular cultural diversity underpinned its goal of driving social inclusion.

Such initiatives are authentic because they are grounded in real communities, genuinely address local issues, and extend from a natural alignment between club and community.

This allows football clubs, which have evolved from kitchen table organisations to A$50 million-plus commercial operations, to remain authentically embedded within community.

2. Engage current and prospective supporters 365 days a year

Sport marketers retain a necessary focus on game day. But this is nestled in broader communication and community strategies that aim to achieve year-round engagement.

Non-game days typically represent 95% of the calendar year, so sport clubs employ communications specialists to produce media content beyond the match itself.

This includes player-focused interviews and biographies, match previews and debriefs, coach insights and community visits.

Such content helps fill the vacuum between individual matches or during the off-season, keeping supporters connected to their club.

And while sport clubs retain a focus upon their home games as major commercial events, professional sport clubs also have a broader calendar of less overt community events.

While a typical AFL or NRL club hosts about 12 home games a season, they run at least triple as many community-orientated events – such as school visits or fan days – to foster community engagement.

3. Defining and living an organisational identity

Sport teams are best known by their mascots and colours, but they’re also defined by the values they seek to associate the brand with – for example, family-orientated, pioneering, working-class.

All these elements combine to form a club’s identity.

Well-defined identities can inform decision-making, such as the Sydney Swans’ fabled “no dickhead” team recruitment policy.

Melbourne Football Club’s core values of “trust, respect, unity and excellence” informs their off-field staff recruitment. Club identity also helps fans make sense of why they support a particular team over another.

Where football clubs protect and cultivate their identity, major parties battle a perception they’re all “just as bad as each other” – there’s a perceived interchangeability.

By better defining their desired identities with communities outside of elections, major parties would become less reliant on election campaign advertising spending wars to educate voters.

They’d also be less vulnerable to smear campaigns.

Major parties battle a perception they’re all ‘just as bad as each other’. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Rewriting the gameplan

While Australia’s professional sports teams continue to illustrate their success in engaging communities, our major political parties are struggling to build and retain memberships.

Given the underwhelming performance of major political parties last match day, it is perhaps time they rewrite their game plans with the help of sport marketers.

Read more: Regardless of the rules, sport is fleeing free TV for pay, and it might be an avalanche

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