Anthony Costa sports branding

Anthony Costa

Sports Identity & Design

Melbourne United: Is the Rebrand Working?

February 16, 2015
Melbourne United Brand

The Melbourne United brand has had a rocky birth. Almost a year on, how do we assess its worth?

Sean Callanan recently caught up with Melbourne United’s GM Vince Crivelli on his Sports Geek Podcast. It was a chance to understand some of the business challenges facing United and how hard it can be to hammer a new brand into people’s hearts and minds.

Good brands sometimes take time to build. But if a brand is positioned poorly then no amount of time will make it stick. 

Despite underperforming on the court United claim that their new ‘we are basketball’ brand is working. Crowds are “continually on the rise”. Fans are starting to get it.

Or so it seems. I’m not sure the attendance numbers show United’s support to be any stronger than it was under the Tigers brand.

Grandstanding?

Yes, regular season crowds are up ­ – 815 on last season with one last home game to go.

But there’s one crucial detail. United’s preferred home venue, Hisense Arena, was unavailable for most of last season due to renovations.

In 2013/14 Hisense only hosted four regular season games. The remaining nine were held in the cramped 3,500 seat State Netball and Hockey Centre. The last five of these matches were sold out.

This year United were only sent to ‘The Cage’ twice. Six games were scheduled at Hisense and four at the spanking new 7,500 capacity Margaret Court Arena.

Last season the Tigers’ crowds were starved due to being stuck in an unsuitably small venue. United’s ticket capacity has jumped over 42% this year, yet they’ve barely bettered the Tigers’ attendance.

What’s more, United’s average Hisense attendance is lower than it was last season. Even if United equal the Tigers’ highest season Hisense crowd of 7,523 next week, it will still be an 12% dip on last year’s average at the venue.

As we’ve seen at the Adelaide Oval, a swish new state-of-the-art stadium can spark higher attendances. However United could only attract an average 4490 to Margaret Court Arena, despite its prime location right next door to Hisense.

Of course the team’s stuttering form made it more difficult for United to sell tickets. However this doesn’t explain why their home opener only attracted 5,704 ­– lower than every Tigers Hisense home and away crowd last season. The team had been hyped as a championship contender, and United had stated that membership sales were flying ­– up 1,000 on the 2013/14 total by early September. Game one was the launch of a new era. So where were the new fans?

Let’s not pretend though that the Tigers’ following didn’t show signs of softness. United’s home opener still bettered the 3,350 who turned up for the Tigers' inaugural home game last season. Despite coming off a season-record home crowd, the Tigers could only pull 4,044 to their drought breaking first playoff game. Clearly there was work to do.

The point is that United’s crowds are at best on par with what the Tigers would likely have attracted had Hisense been available for the full season. The rebrand was aimed at broadening Melbourne’s affinity with the Tigers but it doesn’t seem to have produced a visible bump in the stands.

Looking long term

United would argue that their new identity is more inclusive, and that over time it will attract more grassroots basketball people to the NBL than the tribal Tigers brand ever could. Maybe. What is clear is that the United brand has been more expensive.

Every rebrand incurs high costs. Promotion has to be stepped up to explain what the change all means. An additional expense has been the $200,000 plus that United has donated to the development of basketball across the state. This three-year strategic deal with Basketball Victoria substantiates the club’s ‘we’re for basketball’ brand claim.

Grassroots development is a fundamental part of any sporting organisation. United have made a significant investment in the game’s future that could increase their support. But wouldn’t a similar level of investment have also grown the Tigers brand? We’re told there were structural complications affecting the Tigers’ relationship to the game’s state body. But if the Tigers had come with a $200,000 cheque would Basketball Victoria not endorse the partnership?

This year United have increased their investment in staff, fan engagement and community development. Was there really a problem with the Tigers brand, or was it the resourcing of the brand that was the issue? Was it given every chance to be successful?

Sometimes brands lose their relevance and you’ve just got to move on. But before you cut all those years of brand equity adrift, make sure you’ve tried everything possible to make it work.

It starts with the heart

What’s the future for Melbourne United? Crivelli has rightly identified how club instability has gouged away at the NBL. He and his team sound committed to the cause, and understand that success will be a long journey. This is good news for the domestic league.

However it’s not productive for United to continue blaming the ‘emotion’ around the rebrand for its lukewarm reception. Emotion is exactly what branding is all about. Brands are emotional halos that let people trust you even when they don’t have all the facts. As one definition puts it, ‘ your brand is what people think of you when they’re not thinking of you’ (I’d love to know who first said this – leave us a comment if you know).

Ultimately your brand has to clarify who you are. If it is causing confusion or disenchantment then it’s not doing its job. I still hold doubts over the viability of the United brand. As with any new sporting entity, success will have a large bearing on whether people want to be part of it. But a good brand can be a life raft that helps carry your marketing through the hard times.

I can’t help but feel that the Tigers fan base would be more sympathetic and supportive of the United rebrand had ownership brought them in at the very beginning and been upfront about the club's financial position. Give them the numbers. Give them a clear reason why change is needed. Give them the time to process and take ownership of the final decision.

Show people a little faith and they might just have faith in you.

Follow Anthony @costasports
Anthony Costa

Anthony Costa is a designer specialising in sports branding. Anthony has appeared on Fox Sports News , 1116 SEN, ABC Radio and is an Australian Sports Commission Media Awards finalist. His work has been featured in The Age, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and Sports Business Insider Australia.

Follow @CostaSports

 

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