As a rugby league fan I can’t wait for the Dolphins to enter the NRL competition in 2023 as the league expands to 17 teams.

I really hope that the Dolphins are successful on and off the field with wins across the board for fans next year and I can’t wait to attend the derby with Brisbane, a ‘North vs South’ Cowboys clash, a ‘Coast to Coast’ battle with the Titans and the Arthur Beetson Trophy clash against Easts. Whatever the marketing magicians name the derby (The Brown Snake derby/Surf N Turf derby/Battle of Brisbane derby) it will no doubt be thrilling to watch with a packed out Lang Park featuring 52,000 rugby league fans in attendance.

The game days at Redcliffe will be sold out and look spectacular in person and on TV at the recently redeveloped Moreton Daily Stadium (please keep the fan-first pricing including cheap beers and lolly bags out there on game days!) while the seven games at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium and one to two tipped to be on the Sunny Coast represent an exciting time for league fans across these areas to see more NRL live in their backyard. It’s truly an exciting time for rugby league fans in Queensland as this will be the fourth QLD team playing in the NRL and no matter who you support you can’t deny that it is good for the game of rugby league in Australia to have more rugby league reaching more people in more communities.

I believe that the Dolphins have got a lot of things right from the outset such as player (plus coaching staff) and sponsor signings (Adventure Kings, XXXX) to membership package price points (cheapest adult NRL season pass $105 for 7 games at SS) and merchandising (Classic Sportswear). They’ve also done well to sign a lot of former Broncos staff and smart sports business creatives who I think have greatly helped the club get going and will no doubt come in handy around all areas of the business as the first season gets underway. It’s all looking really positive and exciting for the Dolphins.

However, the Dolphins are jumping around rough seas too. This is still Broncos territory right? How will the flippers go around driving fan/member acquisition? How will they differentiate themselves from the Broncos in marketing, media, game days/event presentation across the three venues, fan engagement, social media, community? How will they stand out and attract different demographics of female fans, Central QLD fans (newly announced CQ Capras partnership and one trial game per year in Rocky) kids, ex-Broncos fans, new rugby league fans, fans without a team, other sports fans? How will the game days/fan experiences be consistent across multiple stadia? What will the team do in the community (schools/charities) to spread the good word about our Dolphins? And many more intriguing questions….

I’m curious and inquisitive and these are the questions that keep me up early in the morning when trying to wrestle my toddler back to sleep with the help of the sweet dulcet white noise sounds of classic 1992-96 NSWRL/ARL matches.

I’m a die-hard passionate Broncos member and fan since dad first took me to games in 1993 so I’ll forever be loyal to the Broncos. It’s who I am. It’s etched in my memories and it’s part of my life like so many other Broncos fans. In the past two years I’ve also started the fan journey to Broncos games with my daughter Ramona, taking her to one game a year to start our traditions and instil in her the emotional loyalty, positive memories and passion that my dad instilled in me 30 years ago to the Broncos and their match day fan experiences. Apart from religion, sport is one of the only things people stay loyal to for their whole life and it’s why I’m so passionate about the fundamentals of fan engagement (effective communication, active listening, personalisation, empathy, authenticity, storytelling and much more) because if you do these things right, you will build and have positive relationships with fans for life.

Here are some of my thoughts which are in no particular order (mostly because I have written this over several mornings at 2am while telling my daughter to go back to sleep and she just smiles at me and laughs ‘no’):

  • Storytelling: Play on their long rich history (storytelling) of the club
  • Social media: Be authentic and ensure the content continues to be exceptional
  • Access: All access documentary on the first season (look to the success of Arsenal: All or Nothing and F1: Drive to Survive) and what it took to get to the first game in 2023.
  • Content: Harness the power of their existing fan base to drive authentic fan engagement (fan generated content creators) and get these fans on-side as brand ambassadors.
  • Communication: Listening to fans and go where they are. Social, fan forums and more. Work with fans for a fan code of conduct for game days.
  • Inclusion: Develop a inclusion, equality and diversity strategy for all stakeholders.
  • Kids/Families: School visits/workshops for kids and community family fun fan days. Go to where kids are (Minecraft, Roblox, Pokemon – what can be done here to attract kids as lifelong members). Don’t just do stuff because of FOMO. Do fans really want NFT’s, the team to be on the metaverse or paying for merch with ‘RugbaLeagueCoin’? Plus mascots….have a mascot for every freaking sponsor! The Cowboys have about 15 and kids love them (that’s a lot of costumes to dry clean though)
  • Community: Work with community groups, charities etc throughout Rocky, Bundy, Sunny Coast all the way down to Brisbane to get them and their businesses on board.
  • Sponsors: Communicate why they are sponsors and what they’re doing for fans/members rather than just $$$ into the team for brand exposure. I continually ask sponsors at game days why they sponsor the team and most just kind of shrug their shoulders as if they don’t actually understand why they’re fully doing it or want to understand the fans but can’t we be doing this better in 2023 to drive real connections between sponsors and fans?
  • Focus on evolving sports business tech. Tap into Brisbane start-ups who can add to the fan experience and more areas of the business.
  • Fan Experience and Game days. Focus on diverse offerings. Kids and families fun zones to party atmospheres and quality corporate hospitality that is different from the rest. Unique social seating spaces- how can SS be transformed? Look at what Everton FC have done here with their new venue plans. Ensure that venue staff are well equipped with information, knowledge and passion to assist fans on game days across the three venues to give fans the best, positive and most seamless event day welcome and experience. Look to how US venues run their game day pep-talk briefings. Fans at the centre of the game day. Match day first game certificates, fan of the game, community group of the game, Junior MC, guards of honour etc etc endless fan activations to reward fan/member loyalty.
  • Merchandise. Bring in a retro range of Dolphins gear (how good were those retro BRL kits a few years back) plus partnerships with cool brands including New Era for instance. A focus on kids merch too like with Ashtabula’s range of kids gear as well as ensuring cheaper options are stocked in Best and Less to cater for fans of all budgets.

But what do I know right? I’m just a fan. I want them to succeed even if I am a Broncos fan.

I asked a snapshot of 20 global sports business executives from Australia and overseas as well as 20 sports fans (across different sporting codes) for their thoughts on the topic of how the Dolphins can stand out from the Broncos, acquire new fans and members and be successful on and off the field to drive loyalty across social media, marketing, media, fan engagement and more.

Names redacted.

Responses:

  1. “Well by the looks of things they’ve got one of the best setups in regards to admin staff. Many familiar former Broncos faces circa 2015-18. They’ll be one of the best run clubs off the park. I haven’t checked recently, but I saw initially they had signed up a number of former/current Broncos sponsors. Many of the things the Broncos have done well in recent seasons they’ll likely emulate in their own way. They’ll go hard in the media market once their playing roster is finalised for their debut season.”
  2. “I am really excited to see what the Dolphins can acheive in the next 5 years. They have an abundance of knowledge and experience within their admin staff, many who were decision makers at the Broncos over the last decade. After being granted their NRL licence they’ve brought on board a number of exciting commercial partners who will look to engage with fans and the club in unique ways. From a fan-engagement perspective I am confident they’ll have excellent game-day experiences and membership offerings. They’ve already shown that they’re engaging the local community and this will continue to grow once their NRL playing roster is confirmed.”
  3. “It seems to me that the key is not too dissimilar to any other business. Be good at what you do. If you play well, and hopefully win, then people will get behind you. They are doing the opposite of the Crushers so far which is good. The crushers’ mistake was old players and a less experienced coach. Hopefully the dolphins can pair their experienced coach with a vibrant squad to give them the best chance of success.”
  4. “I like what the lions are proposing for Springfield and womens games. Turn game day into a market day, festival, family fun day. Also their culture should be very inclusive and focus on diversity, the broncos seem quite silent on that and I reckon a socially progressive culture would pick up a lot of fans. And win games ….that will set them apart from the broncos”
  5. “Digital first and content! Behind the scene content on all elements of what it takes to launch a new club. Lean into what’s so different and so unique about their position. The good, the bad, the special. Record everything.”
  6. “I’ll be switching allegiances to the Dolphins based on the fact I grew up in the area. So there’s a bit of brand loyalty on my part. I think that’s something that they have over the Broncos – a much longer history, so a lot of nostalgia they can draw upon. By extension, tapping into that suburban footy vibe. The Broncos are a city town, for all intents and purposes, whereas the Dolphins reflect a suburban corridor. Leaning into this is a strong starting point. They’re not a city club like the Broncos or Roosters, they’re a suburban club, like Wests, Manly or the Sharks.”
  7. “Depends on how the fans feel about the other ‘local’ team. Some will never make the switch due to loyalties through their families. Others fed up with the incumbent will jump right away. Popularity of management, coaches and players can play a part as well. Nicer venue could have an influence. Proximity to fans home/work could also come into play. Media is another thing – I think the Dolphins could really differentiate themselves by targeting a younger demographic, game presentation with a youthful twist or more digital interactivity.”
  8. “They need to be authentic and honour their history QLD’s don’t like fake. It’s a saturated market in my opinion so they need to play the long game, target the next generation the kids. Smart use of data and digital like LAFC in America they could really take some ideas from them on how to build a fan base authentically from zero.”
  9. Take a leaf out of the teal wave book and get volunteers to door knock too a genuine human conversation could quite easily be a convertion to that club. Also corporate support. Apparently a tech alley in Brisbane and surrounds get them on board to do some clever tech based fan initiatives.”
  10. “Gotta go to the Sunshine Coast and cement themselves in that region up to Bundaberg. Almost try and position themselves as a country side/underdog.”
  11. “What they need to do is win games. Wayne is the master of media exposure so they will have no issues there. Win games and they will win plenty of fans. Sign Munster and they win plenty of fans. Play a good brand of footy and be competitive and they win fans. Ensure their jersey is good and supporter gear and they will go okay.Everyone loves a winner. What we don’t need is another Gold Coast titans or wests tigers.”
  12. “My first thought to your message was.. win..and don’t be dickheads. From left field … have lots of mascots. (As broncos used to do in their ANZ Stadium days)… Coverbands for music .. just good singalongs. Fan experience prizes on game day. A junior team as guests of honour at every match … they form guard of honour for run on.”
  13. “I really just think they get into schools and do heaps of community based stuff like GWS did prior to Covid. Get the kids interested, give out free tickets and get families along. Good game day activations, prizes, even stuff like petting zoos and things like that which GWS did really well. Realistically everyone in Brisbane (and Qld) has a team, predominantly the Broncos but also plenty of Sydney teams as well. So I wonder who they are targeting for their fan base? And like Port Adelaide in the SANFL, it’s my understanding that if you’re not a Redcliffe fan you probably hate them so I can’t see many Norths Devils or Wynnum fans or whoever making the switch. So like Port they might just be pigeonholed as a niche side with a traditional following and no room for growth. If they struggle early (and they will because their squad sucks at the moment) it’s going to be a hard road for them because nobody will go watch at Suncorp. I don’t exactly think it will be Crushers Mk II but imagine if we had stuck with them 25 years ago, where might they be now?
  14. Best case scenario I reckon is to be people’s second team for now – cheaper tickets than the Broncos, more family friendly time slots (Sunday arvo?) and give off the community based team vibe as opposed to the corporate Brisbane. Will Broncos fans have a hatred of them or sense a genuine rivalry? Who knows. They don’t really have it with the Titans and they’re as close as they’ve had to a neighbour. My mate up in Brisbane is a lifetime Souths fan (lived in Sydney til he was 40) and his young bloke loves them as well but I feel they’d be more likely to go watch the Dolphins play Parra or whatever than they would to watch the broncos, so maybe that’s what they’re banking on until they can develop a generation of fans? Either way it’s weird to me that they went with an existing entity rather than a new team with no Q Cup ties. Or Perth but that’s another matter entirely!”
  15. “I’d be looking to do things entirely differently to any other team on socials, not the same cookie cutter stuff”
  16. I think they already have fans via their long history, so I think they’d want to make sure that’s all integrated in well. And people who don’t like the Broncos might just support them by default too. I think if they can win a few games, that’ll go a long way, as for game day etc, though not sure what they can do to really draw people. Will be interesting to see!”
  17. “I think it’s going to be difficult to create a consistent fan experience at different venues (suncorp vs Redcliffe have different vibes). I think one thing they have done well is promote their signings which started with Redcliffe as juniors – as they have an entire pathway to elite I hope this is something they promote into the future. I also hope they create a community and family atmosphere at games – kids zones and activities, family days to meet players, open training sessions etc. I think it all starts with being genuine to their community, need to win people over.”
  18. Community engagement (working with local clubs and schools), community appearances (winning over those who aren’t inclined to be Dolphins fans) and doing loca media to the marketThat stretches into Gameday, media, brand etc What is genuine to their community? You can’t pretend you’re Broncos 2.0 it won’t workI’d have a minimum commitment for all staff to do community hours – from players and coaches to the commercial and marketing team. Share the resources at all levels.”
  19. “Has to come from a place of brand clarity. What makes them inherently different? Who are their people?The long term is all about the kids as they’ll grow up in a world where the dolphins aren’t the new team but on equal footing with broncos titans and cowboys.”
  20. “Rugby league, in my view, is extremely reluctant towards change, so I’m not expecting anything significant from the Dolphins.
  21. “The Broncos are such a super power. I’d hate to go up against them. Also from what I’ve seen, the Dolphins haven’t recruited a side that’s going to really excite existing fans. So maybe you target the untapped markets? Cold Community’s , people who have no loyalty to anyone in rugby league, recently arrived migrants, refugees, WOMEN! I’d also probably case study Toronto Wolfpack game day and see what could be learned from their success. Different circumstances they didn’t have a competitor, but they had amazing engagement with fans that didn’t even know what RL was. A bit like Newtown do, they had craft beer festivals, and post match parties with a DJ on the field etc. made the players really accessible.
  22. More women business networks, and maybe even a female focused charity partner or respectful relationships flagship Community program, targeted female recruitment strategies for staffing, go real bold and have a family planning policy (recently raised by the Federal Minister for sport would be the first in the NRL) or all of the above. Oh and of course massive investment in female pathways from playing, officiating and administering. From day 1!”
  23. “They still haven’t claimed an identity. That’s a start. The fact that Bennett is coaching a foundation club against a club he won many premierships with is intriguing. Brisbane isn’t the club they were, and I think the Dolphins, as a new club, can entice supporters. The fact they are a new club is enough to give interest to supporters who don’t support Brisbane. The Bennett factor is enormous, and if they happen to get Munster, even more so. I think it will come down to who they sign. They will need to be competitive, at least to acquire a decent fan base.”
  24. “1. True two-way social media engagement. Don’t just post messages, respond to good quality fan input. 2. Show the team “behind the scenes” – membership team, guy who puts the jerseys out each game day, groundskeeper preparing the field. US teams do a great job of this with little docos. 3. Try and take some ideas from MiLB – Cap Days , bobble-heads, etc 4. Have the game day atmosphere start outside the stadium, food trucks, bands playing, mascot greeting fans before they enter the ground 5. Don’t assume people will know or seek out match info- I think the Dolphins need to promote themselves on radio, posters, buses, billboards with a distinctive ‘brand’ that’s not a cookie cutter NRL style 6. Really engage with supporters group(s). Work with them to harness their passion in the stadium. Work to give them priority seating, materials etc. 7. Run a competition for young kids- design a Dolphins t-shirt Winner is produced and sold at the team store. Proceeds to charity.”
  25. “As many others have said, I think they’re making a huge mistake not embracing their local community (ie. Redcliffe, Moreton Bay, even Sunny Coast) and representing them, forming a connection with them…Media wise, they’ll need to be extremely smart (and progressive). So in summary, they have a lot of work to do. All comes down to finding their real identity and investing their energy into developing that. They’ll need to take risks, they’ll need to think outside the box. Time will tell if they can do that.”
  26. “It’s a hard one to answer but when I look at the Dolphins, the way the have done things in in relation to their branding has been pretty front foot forward, bold and impressive. Not associating a particular suburb or city with their name as an example. Selling good looking merchandise such as snap backs you’d see in culture kings or street wear stores, everything down to the font screams ‘Expensive, Luxury’ team. It almost screams NFL or NBA.”
  27. “A team that understands current culture, wants to be modern, fresh and up-to-date. If they continue doing things that in my opinion continue to target the demographic they have by staying in trend, people will just follow.”
  28. “Merch! People want to wear a jersey to support their team, but they want to wear a good looking one. One that tells people around them the type of person they are.”
  29. “They should potentially look at merchandise outside of what typical NRL teams do.. jerseys, cheap produced hats, best and less looking gear.Have a look at the fashion trends around and continue to be a leader in the market. Show other teams that NRL these days is more than just tradies, Lowes gear and sinking xxxx (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But the NRL to me is about families, friends and culture. People want to represent their teams, but they also want to represent who they are. A lot of the teams just go for low hanging fruit in their advertising and are scared to be bold and make a statement saying ‘we’re different’. It’s too easy to sign an NRL mass produced cookie cutter merch deal and let the NRL look after it.”
  30. “Advice from my time working at REDACTED as a new club: generic but hopefully helpful, figure out your Audience and go hard on attracting those types (don’t try to be everything to everybody, try and build traditions from day 1, they all won’t land but some things will, it’s a unique opportunity to track fan milestones from the start, first game certificates and data tracking, don’t do things because the broncos do that, make membership really, really affordable or attractive in year 1 to drive data growth, leverage the derby to help define who you are (WSW and Sydney fc did this really well in year 1, a hero is only as good as the villain type story). They also need to have a name other than the dolphins in my honest opinion”
  31. “The broncos are who they are and all that it encapsulates – friday nights at suncorp, flashy, pressure etc. Having games on saturday or sunday will help. I think they should really embrace being a community club – by embracing those that already are on board. Example: highlight the NRL physio – he is 1000% a dolphins man already and they should make it seem like he is part of a place. The place where we all want to be.”
  32. “For one – more Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon games. We usually have magnificent winter days, and people love going to day games. I’m a bit tired of the drunk bogans on a Friday night tbh. Affiliations with junior clubs, reasonably priced family tickets. Really push the family atmosphere mate (I think). I see the peanuts acting up at Broncos games and think I don’t want my kids witnessing this rubbish.”
  33. “I think them having a well known coach and building an impressive roster of team players. I think having a long time until they officially start in the NRL gives time to promote for members. Media exposure has been sparse of late but when Wayne Bennett was announced as coach, it was a buzz for the team and a reason for people to take them seriously.”
  34. “I think the best thing that they can do (that has no cost) is involve fans in the creative process – Jerseys, apparel, social media templates ect. Get fans involved and invested in the club straight away by letting them decide how the club is going to look. First impressions are everything, and if they do it themselves and get it wrong it will be hard to recover. The broncos have such a strangle on Brisbane and the surrounds and the Titans have made good inroads in NSW, so it will be interesting to see how they market to those areas. As I said I think it all comes back to showing that the club offers a unique experience for fans where they can be involved in some decision making”
  35. “Social media playbook. First step is defining your voice. Who are you, what do you stand for, how do you communicate. – If I were them, I’d be taking an edgy, aggressive, upstart tone. Broncos are established. You need to get attention. Think a youngest child mentality. Be the smartass, the one who gets into trouble, the one who is goading their siblings because they want attention. – IMPORTANT to get senior management, coaching staff and players fully on board with this. – Get the players into the community as much as possible. Schools, charity, local business etc. – Set the bar for elite digital content. A new club has the advantage of being new and interesting. Fans of OTHER teams are going to follow them because they want to see how they announce themselves. So bespoke illustration, memes, high quality graphics etc. Be a leader in this space. – Set up “sister” teams/clubs/sports. I don’t know culturally/regionally how this will work, but for example, if you find out Patty Mills is a Dolphins fan, align with Brooklyn and make them your NBA team. They probably won’t have much interest in spending much time on that, but nothing stopping the Dolphins from doing a special graphic for key games, or a graphic jersey concept, or a merchandise collab. – Find ways to needle the Broncos. Think about it….. your fans are going to be Dolphins diehards, or non-Broncos NRL fans who want to see some banter.”
  36. “But some of the things I’d look at doing (based on what clubs are doing overseas) are: – consider e-sports – NRLW team ASAP – Wheelchair team ASAP – No pokies – youth engagement: well publicised event days to engage with local youth – have a clear, demonstrated policy around sustainability/environment – good F&B offering (including appropriate pricing) – active engagement with local charities – good apparel partner: making the kit something that people want to wear, with push into ‘fashion’ Aim is to make the club more than about sport, that people support regardless of the results.”
  37. “I think Dolphins need to come out winning, which is going to be tough on them and they are going to have to be consistent. I think broncos fans have had enough of the up and down of team and getting their hopes up. Although I think 2023 will be a different year for them. If the dolphins come out strong and consistent, I think they will turn a lot of SE QLD sports fans heads.”

Plenty of good thoughts here around identity, brand, fan engagement with a lot more to think about as well.

At the end of the day the most important thing is what happens on the field.

Win games and the fans will come!

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