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NRL Head Of Partnerships Reflects On The 2020 Season

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peaking to Ministry of Sport in part one of a two-part interview series, NRL head of partnerships, Jaymes Boland-Rudder, reflected back on the 2020 NRL Premiership season, revealing the biggest lesson the league learnt through COVID-19.

The NRL, like all other sporting competitions around the world, was put on hold at the start of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the league was quick to decide it wanted to be one of the first competitions to return to action, signalling a May 28 restart date.

Boland-Rudder said if the NRL had a second chance at 2020, they would reconsider stopping the season in the first place.

“When we reflect on 2020, for us it was more about leading the way and being innovative,” Boland-Rudder told Ministry of Sport.

“We were very focused, and criticised for being so focused, on recommencing the competition; when we announced we would be the first sport re-commencing on May 28, there were plenty of people who were against us, and by the end of the year, they were singing our praises.

“By being the first sport back in Australia and almost globally, it enabled us to ensure all our commercial partners derived value.

“That was a major focus for us, but it also gave them the confidence in us as an organisation.

“We adopted a can-do attitude and have been very focused on innovation and very focused on data, whether it be data analysis to determine what was happening with COVID and what we could and couldn’t do in a safe and reasonable manner, or whether it be on the use of our data and our ability to use our digital network connecting our partners to our fans during that two-month hiatus without content being played, it was a major focus for us through the year.

“If we were to do the season again, in hindsight, we question whether we would have stopped the season.

“If we could do a redo, that would be the thing we would revisit.

“In terms of May 28 onwards, we did incredibly well in that we said ‘hey we’re going to get this competition restarted’ but then the next focus was ‘well let’s get fans back in’ and within two rounds of recommencing, we were able to get fans back in, albeit in small numbers.

“We were able to continue to edge our way forward until the end of the year for our last game of Origin; we had a full crowd once again, which was an illustration to our partners that we were leading the way and we could only do that through them and with them.

“They derived value off of that, both in terms of engagement with our fan base, being able to deliver a really exciting product, but also that rugby league had gone from being viewed as arguably not the number one winter sport in the country, to all of the sudden being the number one winter sport in the country and establishing ourselves as a true leader,” he said.

Looking at the response from the NRL’s corporate partners following the NRL’s decision to return to action on May 28, Boland-Rudder admitted some sponsors were unsure of the decision to begin with.

“There were a few partners who certainly questioned our ability to do so and certainly thought we were overly ambitious, and that was a reflection of where the community was at through the month of April,” Boland-Rudder said.

“They certainly weren’t opposed, and throughout the period worked with us in a really collaborative manner on ‘what are the variables’ and ‘how do we approach each hurdle.

“We couldn’t have asked for more from our partners and the loyalty they showed in coming on the journey with us,” he said.

Discussing how the NRL’s approach to digital technology in the commercial world changed due to COVD-19, Boland-Rudder said the NRL became a lot more targeted in its approach to sponsorship activation for fans.

“We have now across our NRL network, 1.8 million unique users who have signed up, and we can engage with them directly,” Boland-Rudder said.

“We spent a lot of time this year analysing who they are, what they’re interested in, what they do as jobs, where do they shop, and what’s their consumption habits, so that we could take a very targeted approach in partnership with our corporate partners.

“This helped us to make sure we’re communicating to the people most interested in our partner’s products and delivering to them a compelling proposition as to why they should purchase from our partners and engage with our partners.

“That way, our partners were able to see a tangible return on investment,” he said.

When asked if COVID-19 has forever changed the NRL’s commercial strategy and the NRL as a whole, Boland-Rudder told Ministry of Sport: “Yes, for the better; it definitely accelerated our utilisation of our digital assets and platforms and enabled a direct conversation between partner and fan where there is that ability to measure return on investment, which is really exciting.”

“For every problem we’ve been presented through the year, there’s been a solution, and that’s really driven innovation, whether that be a product on the field through the introduction of new rules to quicken up the game and make it the most exciting entertainment product in the nation when it comes to a sporting product, or whether it be through innovation in the utilisation of digital platforms, or even innovation in the workplace and how we operate as a workplace and engage with our employees and staff.

“2020 has had a remarkable impact for us, and for the better,” he said.

Part two of the interview with Boland-Rudder will examine the NRL’s commercial strategy heading into 2021 and how the continued growth of digital in the sporting industry will drive the NRL’s commercial activations.

Keep an eye out on the Ministry of Sport website, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for when part two is released.