How we can learn from sport

Firstly, let me apologise for the lack of column last week. That’s what public holidays are for, aren’t they?

Firstly, let me apologise for the lack of column last week. That’s what public holidays are for, aren’t they?

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks totally engrossed by the world of marketing. For whatever reason, I’ve been taking particular notice to how things are promoted, how things are marketed and how people respond.

Last Friday I went to a business lunch and listened to talk about websites such as Facebook, and how it really is just an advertising vehicle posing as a social networking website. When you look behind the scenes at such initiatives, truths start to come out.

With not much else to do yesterday morning, I watched the first couple of hours of the Bathurst 1000 motor race. Now here is the ultimate marketing machine. Signage on every corner, and on every possible part of each car. Channel Seven’s broadcast – which if you are a sports fan or not, is simply remarkable – is full of advertising and targeted marketing. So many of the ads were so clever, and somewhat similar to what the Superbowl in America does with targeted marketing.

I know Les Solomon mentioned last week his hate for all things sport, but rather than being something to turn our noses up at, sport is something to learn from. Why? For two reasons – firstly, sport gets it so right on so many occasions and secondly, certain sports are able to bounce back from a crisis better than any industry in the planet.

Let’s take rugby league for instance. Here is a sport that in 1997 was torn apart, and almost destroyed by greed. In short, two separate premier competitions ran in the one year. The result was disastrous, and by the time the game was re-united in 1998, many lifelong friendships had been destroyed. Think of it this way – what would happen if the Sydney Theatre Company split into two different companies? It is foolish to suggest that the two companies would produce the same quality of work.

Anyway, by the time 2000 came around, rugby league was stronger than ever, and 13 years after the ‘war’, the game is achieving record revenue from ticket sales, members, sponsorship and television rights. Along the way, rugby league has faced many well-documented problems, and even this year, one club was thrown out for cheating in a massive scandal. The result? Season-record attendances and a spectacular finish to the season.

Resilient isn’t the word.

Advertising is all over rugby league, despite its past problems. Why? Because they know it works, and they know that sport has this incredible way of bouncing back.

So how does this all tie in with theatre?

Well, the reality is that our marketing is very challenging. Our product – theatre – is not enough, hence it is our sub-products, such as the individual shows, that are the key selling points. Even then, we have problems getting shows across the line at times – no matter what their quality. Rugby league would never face such a crisis – a game between two Sydney clubs doing well would always be close to a sellout. So what goes wrong? And when we get it right, do we spend any time actually figuring out why it went so right?

My point is this: sports all have governing bodies. Sure, the Dragons may be the successful rugby league team for the season, and they may be their own organisation, but the NRL effectively controls them. A governing body that monitors everything to do with the industry.

So I ask you this, in an ego-filled world, could a governing body ever look after top-line theatre? Could a governing body promote, and produce theatre, with sub-companies (such as our current major companies) running underneath the one banner?

The result in sport when such a thing happens is that if one club is in trouble, rescue packages can be performed because much of the corporate sponsorship and support goes to the governing body as a whole and not the individual teams.

I see it this way – theatre companies take risks at the moment. They walk tightropes. Having a governing body is almost like putting a net underneath the tightrope – there’s suddenly a safety switch.

I think we get so much right in theatre, but I also think that a governing body, to run as a serious administration for theatre as a whole, would make quite a difference to this industry.

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