The official AFL website shows how a sport should produce its own content.
T here’s a good reason the official AFL site is regularly mentioned as the finest Australian example of sports content marketing. It’s what AFL.com.au doesn’t do that makes it stand out.
Although it’s devoted to the game that bears its name and is hosted by Australia’s biggest telco, Telstra, this is not really a corporate sales tool or vehicle for PR puffery. It’s not a simple portal that allows the game or its sponsor to commercialise its various “products”, as other Australian sports sites are. It is sharp, well produced and, like many of the game’s vocal supporters, is happy to have playful kicks into underperforming teams, coaches, players, tribunals or umpires.
Of course, it’s not likely to rip into the AFL itself, so the game’s biggest insider scandals and criticism of the governing body are left for the non-aligned mainstream media (especially The Herald-Sun and The Age). For AFL.com.au to do this would be like joey kicking his mother in the stomach – not recommended for future health and survival. While it makes a big deal of its “editorial integrity”, AFL.com.au prefers to produce news stories that deal with what happens inside the boundary line.
Does this matter? Not really, because it’s a strategy that’s working. AFL.com.au’s audience numbers are staggering – 1.6 million unique visitors and 12 million page impressions per month with an average session time of almost 3 minutes, and 3 million app downloads. For Telstra, it’s a wonderful way to reach and entertain a male demographic aged 18-49. It’s also nice to brag that it has the number 1 sporting site in the country. This is a rare corporate website that’s insanely popular and carries a degree of integrity.
On any given day, AFL.com.au has breaking news coverage, commentary, fantasy league updates, analysis, video highlights, full post-match interviews, player ratings, tips, curated tweets, as well as up-to-date information and statistics from the AFL. It’s the go-to site for committed and casual followers of the footy code because it produces a range of newsworthy and entertaining stories, with a clear focus on mobile-friendly video. A particular highlight is Friday Front Bar, a weekly video program that mixes host Andy Maher with comedians Mick Molloy and Sam Pang in front of a live audience. It’s routinely funny and playfully irreverent.
The National Rugby League, which was half-owned by News Corporation until 2012, clearly isn’t game to challenge the orthodoxy with such a free-form approach. Its Telstra-sponsor site – nrl.com – is a paint-by-numbers roll-call of strained-hamstring stories and lifeless match previews. The recently launched rugby.com.au promises to cover the game “from all sides” but doesn’t seem prepared to run anything that could be described as controversial (or even slightly edgy). Both rugby-based sites just show how difficult it is for any media brand to comprehensively analyse an entity that pays its electricity and wages bills.
AFL.com.au is operated by AFL Media, which is run by former senior Foxtel executive Peter Campbell. Established as the league’s independent media arm in 2012, AFL Media is responsible for operating the website and publishing 105-year-old match-day publication AFL Record. It’s run out of the AFL’s headquarters in Melbourne’s Docklands, and employs dozens of experienced journalists who at one time might have featured on The Age, The Herald-Sun or Fox Sports websites. According to marketing website Mumbrella, it was the first “proper” media organisation to employ independent journalists.
General manager Campbell told Mumbrella last year that the editorial staff has a code of conduct and a responsibility to cover, not promote, the sport. “The editorial staff don’t work to a direction of ‘let’s paint this in a rosy glow’,” he said. “Even the most challenging of stories … our staff are charged with only one thing, which is report it correctly. If we try and put a gloss on it they [the audience] will see through that.”
According to Campbell, the big change came when the AFL and its digital rights holder Telstra saw the benefit of setting up a properly resourced content arm. “There was initial scepticism about the AFL running an editorial division,” Campbell told industry website MediaWeek last year. “I was charged with bringing it together in a cohesive fashion and directing it as a true business serving the football consumer and making sure we provided our supporters with as much information about the AFL and Australian rules football as we possibly could. We have made some great inroads in terms of being able to deliver some great content to supporters.”
And it seems fans keep coming back for more.
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