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How The Melbourne Vixens Won A Super Netball Championship Without A Premier Partner

T
he Melbourne Vixens were recently crowned the champions of the Suncorp Super Netball competition and managed to do so without the backing of a Premier Partner, or ‘front-of-dress partner’, as its commonly referred as in netball.

In part one of a two-part exclusive interview series, Netball Victoria general manager of communications, marketing and partnerships, Kristen Penny, along with Netball Victoria business development manager, Aaron Bosse, spoke to Ministry of Sport about just how the club was comfortable not having a Premier Partner this year.

When asked whether any brands have regretted the missed opportunity to sign on as a Premier Partner of the club before the start of the 2020 Super Netball season, Bosse said the lack of a Premier Partner allowed the Vixens to focus on connecting the sport to Australians.

“We had a premier partner for 11 years prior to this season, that premier partner, through no impact of COVID, decided to invest in different areas,” Bosse told Ministry of Sport.

“Still within our business, but the direction of the Vixens was obviously not their priority, and there were a number of brands that were generally interested before the season started.

“In terms of the pipeline leading up to this season, it was strong, but what happened has allowed us to take a step back and go, from what would be perceived as a negative position going into 2020 and COVID impacted season, to ‘how can we turn this negative into a positive’ and really try and connect the sport, which is what we’re really about doing.

“We’re an elite sporting club, but we’re also the peak sporting body for netball in Victoria.

“By taking a step back and looking at what we can do by not having a Premier Partner has allowed us to open up and it’s creating another side of our business of how we market our sport to the whole community, not just individual pockets.

“Whether its participants, members of the Vixens, fans and supporters across communities, we’re pretty comfortable with how the year’s gone, albeit without the naming rights or that significant partner.

“I have spoken to a few brands recently, I got an email this morning not about premier partnership, but it was a significant partnership that didn’t happen.

“It was almost at contracting stage earlier in the year pre-COVID, and for many reasons was put on hold, and they did send me a message this morning saying ‘if we had bitten the bullet and just done it, how good the result would be’.

“There’s definitely brands out there that wish they could of, unfortunately, financial situations wouldn’t have allowed it anyway…

“You can’t regret things too much, I think it’s something that will hopefully reignite those conversations for 2021 and onwards, it still feels like there’s that uncertainty to hit goals on a lot of partnerships.

“No one wants to make any big financial decisions, especially at a Premier Partner level.

“As a club and a state body, we’re not interested in bringing in a Premier Partner for a short-term perspective, we know Premier Partners benefit through a long-term partnership and the data proves that.

“To make that investment over a long-term is still a big jump for a brand in the current climate right now, but we’re hopeful we can get those brands back on to what I’m calling the ‘premiership wave’ and hopefully have something in line for the season to start next year,” he said.

Adding on to that, Penny said the opportunity of not having signed a Premier Partner for the 2020 Super Netball season, allowed the club to showcase important initiatives such as the ‘Witness Fearless’ campaign, which the Vixens describe as ‘a challenging statement to those on the periphery of the netball community; other sport fans, media, keyboard warriors & general disbelievers, challenging them to think differently, to see netball in a different light, to question their preconceived views on what netball is.’

“As a team, we’re netball, we’re women sport, it’s always going to be harder for us,” Penny told Ministry of Sport.

“At the start of the season The Age gave us a poor rating for the season, and because of our relationship with Puma, they stepped up and called it out, that’s how Witness Fearless was essentially born.

“Whilst we didn’t have that premier partner, we were able to bring Witness Fearless to life with Puma and make it a rally cry to look at what these women do, look at what the sport is, and use the Vixens to also get that into community sport.

“We know in Victoria we’ve been the worst hit, we haven’t played community sport, but in terms of the whole of Australia, we’ve not hit the court, but Witness Fearless has somehow galvanised the whole netball community and also got these new followers on board.

“It’s also allowed our team to ensure all of our partners have stayed on board.

“We’ve developed all these new opportunities out of this, we’ve really had to think outside the square, which all sports have, but netball can sometimes be perceived as a little behind, but in terms of what our team has delivered, it has been next level and is on par with any other sport in Australia this season.

“We went live every Thursday night with Vixens Live, to be able to deliver contract deliverables for our partners.

“We had one partner in April going to pull their sponsorship straight away, but what we were able to offer in changing the contract around a little bit, we’ve been able to keep them on in a really positive result.

“COVID has definitely brought its challenges, but moving forward, if a Premier Partner doesn’t come on board, they’re crazy.

Look at the numbers of viewership, our athletes that hit the court are next level, you don’t see them in the newspaper punching outside a kebab shop or anything like that…

“If you’re looking from a partnership perspective, you want people to be called out, you want to be aligned to a team or organisation that is confident enough to do that and call out a multinational organisation.

“From our perspective, get on board the Vixens and get on board Netball Victoria.

“We’ve got so many amazing properties available to offer and we reach so many people, it’s the number one participation sport in Australia,” she said.

When asked how COVID-19 has affected the commercial strategy of the Vixens for future years, Bosse said digital activations will continue to be key.

“We would love a premier partner, but we’re not sad about how the year’s gone because some of the results that have come from this Witness Fearless campaign have really ignited something that’s probably been burning for a while, and it has given us the platform to actually do it,” Bosse said.

“What we have to continue to do is diversify how we bring in revenue to the business.

“This year has been a big reset in terms of how we look at partnerships and how we are going to structure deals in terms of acquisition.

“More so than ever, it’s about finding the right balance with contractual flexibilities…

“It would be ignorant to assume this type of situation would never happen again, we never want to be in a position like this, but we should be planning for this type of thing.

“People talk about return on investment (ROI), and that’s important because if brands are investing they want to see that return, but a brand doesn’t care if you report back they received 150 million QI media value on their display advertising.

“They want to see behavioural changes impacting their business, for us it’s about confidently delivering a return on their objectives and what success looks like for them.

“Everyone knows during this period that digital has been key because we physically can’t stay connected, but digitally we can, and we can continue to engage our stakeholder base.

“What’s really held us in good stead is leaning on our commercial content strategy and really trying to bring that to life.

“Rights holders that haven’t had that have had to work really quickly to create something out of nothing.

“Our team is so well planned and strategic in what we do roll out, that it’s been a luxury to be able to rely on that.

“That’s allowed us to create new digital products that we’ve aligned with our partners and what they want to do.

“This isn’t short-term solutions that have just been created, it’s developed a whole new suite of digital assets we can build on,” he said.

Penny also told Ministry of Sport the biggest takeaways from the COVID-19 pandemic and how it affected the Vixens, Super Netball as a whole, and the wider sport industry are “creativity and collaboration”.

“It’s been hard, in Victoria, the Victorian clubs are different in terms of the sporting landscape, we’ve been locked up since March 27, we’ve been working from home, we’ve managed to deliver a season remotely,” Penny said.

“There’s a team of 11 that looks after communications, marketing, partnerships, memberships, ticketing, websites, digital, everything, we’ve managed to stick together, and be so positive in what has been such a challenging year.

“We’ve managed to deliver seven home games for the Vixens in Queensland with two people on the ground, plus a home final on the home court of the opposition, and win a Grand Final, also whilst pivoting the contract deliverables to keep all of our sponsors onboard, and it’s the relationships we already had with our sponsors that has helped us.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the team in what they’ve managed to deliver remotely in Victoria, compared to the other states where they have been in an office together and working collaboratively together and being able to do what they’ve been able to do, and we have walked away with a premiership.

“Yes, there is the team on the court, but it’s the team behind the team that have also allowed that to happen.

“What we’ve been able to achieve is next level, we haven’t lost a single sponsor, which blows my mind.

“At the start, our feet were scrambling; it’s been a real challenge, but I think we’ve done extraordinarily well and its onwards and upwards,” Penny told Ministry of Sport.

Part two of the two-part interview series with Penny and Bosse looking at sponsorship trends across netball, women’s sport, and the broader Australian sporting landscape is now available here.