The Walkley Award-winning journalist on the challenges of captaining the AFL’s content team.
Sport has embraced branded content more than any other industry. Australia’s major codes have followed the lead of the US NFL and NBA by creating newsrooms devoted to producing fan-oriented content all day, every week. On the eve of the AFL’s 2018 season, we asked the game’s Head of Content, Matt Pinkney, a Walkley Award-winning former Herald Sun digital editor in Melbourne, how his team selects stories and manages the interests of head office and the commercial department.
Brand Tales: What is your role at the AFL?
Pinkney: I have heaps of roles, both formal and informal. The most obvious is to manage a team of multi-platform journalists and producers to create content that is comprehensive, authentic, fair, ethical and innovative (to directly plagiarise our editorial principles). Outside of that, I’m in a constant process of attempting to convince people that telling the truth about your own brand is a great thing; it leads to audience, influence and associated commercial and marketing benefits. I spend a lot of time brokering compromises between fan user experience and our enthusiastic commercial team. I also spend much of my day discussing the multiple dynamics of stories such as the Essendon drugs saga and the controversial departure of two of our executives last year.
Brand Tales: Where do your story ideas come from?
Pinkney: I hope it doesn’t sound trite, but we’re all football lovers and we generally create content about the things that we would want to read, watch or listen to if we didn’t work at the AFL. It’s both a privilege and obligation and when something doesn’t work, we take it a bit personally. The industry often talks about “failing fast”; I don’t buy that. If we know ourselves and our fans as well as we should, failure shouldn’t feature too often.
Brand Tales: How hands-off is the AFL when your team is deciding what to cover?
Pinkney: In terms of topics, headlines, angles, style, sound-grabs, placement and all the other components of a given piece of content, the AFL is completely hands-off. We are, however, aware that there are certain initiatives or announcements that the AFL would expect us to cover. Sometimes these are very newsworthy and therefore fall within our normal processes – the new women’s competition, for example. Other times they’re pretty dry and they’ll generally end up in our AFL HQ section where official announcements live.
Brand Tales: Are there any no-go subjects?
Pinkney: Definitely. We won’t report on the private/personal relationship issues of players or other industry figures. We’ll generally not report on former players who have become involved in crime (there are always exceptions, and we recently reported on the West Coast Eagles’ offer of part-time work for Ben Cousins). We don’t report social media speculation and we won’t publish unless we’ve given all parties a genuine opportunity to respond. This has led to us being beaten on yarns where the news has broken while we waited, but we’re prepared to pay that (occasional) price.
Brand Tales: What advantages do you have now that you would have enjoyed while at the Herald Sun?
Pinkney: The luxury of a digital rights deal that delivers both funding for genuine journalism and the privilege to use match vision and official AFL IP in content. At the Herald Sun, we were constantly testing the boundaries on fair dealing for match vision and would tremulously wait for the AFL lawyers to call. Now I’m on the other side and can see that defending the purchased asset of a rights holder is critically important. Another advantage is the exposure I’ve had to many other business disciplines and the people who work in them. When I was in newspapers, editorial was the tip of the pyramid. The AFL has a much flatter structure that leads people to think in different ways.
Brand Tales: What trends do you see in sports content, especially on sites developed by sports organisations?
Pinkney: Stats and their digital representation is a developing opportunity that is still a long way from being realised. And the addition of new metrics such as player tracking via worn GPS units will create a whole new way of viewing and analysing the game. Voice control is probably more of a pre-trend, but I’m very excited about a future in which fans who are watching a televised game can ask their Apple, Google or Amazon speaker how often their team has won from this position against this particular opponent. An interesting trend, but one I think will fizzle, is the recent proliferation of “player’s voice” first-person platforms. By far the best and most engaging results emerge when a professional storyteller works with an athlete. But I would say that.
Brand Tales: What are your favourite examples of Australian sports content?
Pinkney: I love Test cricket and how Channel 9 has harnessed technology to dissect the game as it occurs. And kudos to the ICC or whichever body decided that the decision review system could be broadcast in real time – it brings fans into the heart of some of the most critical moments of the game. While I don’t follow it closely, I admire the creation of the Big Bash League.
Brand Tales: Is there one sports site from anywhere in the world that you really admire?
Pinkney: It may be stretching the definition, but Strava (a GPS-based exercise and stats tracker) is a sports site/app that has literally changed my life for the better. It has spurred me to up my exercise by at least 50 per cent, it has allowed me to make new friends, encouraged me to explore new places, compare myself to world champions on the same stretch of road and know that my mate in New York reached a maximum heart rate of 168 when he crossed the intersection of 5th Avenue and west 49th. If it were possible to combine BBC Football, Guardian Football and OneFootball, it would be a beautiful amalgam of authority, analysis and mostly unfounded, but sometimes accurate, transfer speculation.
Links & references
Brand Tales’ Siteseer article on the AFL website
New game in town: the rise of Players’ Voice