Jennifer Watt, General Manager – Commercial Operations and Partnerships at the Melbourne Cricket Club, spoke at the ICON Melbourne Forum this year, offering her insights into building a new audience. She shared three stories that have shaped her career and helped her former employer, the Melbourne Football Club, expand its audience.
Raising awareness of breast cancer through the Pink Lady
In 2009, the Melbourne Football Club was in crisis: many of its executives had been moved on and the team had been awarded the ‘wooden spoon’ after finishing the year at the bottom of the AFL ladder. “There was no compelling reason to the support the Melbourne Football Club … It was an absolutely miserable time,” she said. The club realised it needed to expand its audience. “We felt the game wasn’t representing women. They didn’t see themselves on the field or in positions of leadership. We wanted to do something that showed that it valued women’s contributions to the game,” she said.
Lyn Swinburne, founder of Breast Cancer Network Australia, contacted the club with an idea: to create a giant Pink Lady during an AFL match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to raise money to support breast cancer patients. The Club saw the potential audience it could reach from the collaboration and jumped at the opportunity, holding their first ‘BCNA Field of Women’ in 2005, which was a great success, raising significant funds and awareness for breast cancer as well as improving the club’s profile.
The event became an important one to everyone involved in the football club. When the Club first agreed to host the Pink Ladies Watt Lyn didn’t realise how big an impact it would have on the entire club. “Stories very quickly emerged of members or players family and friends having breast cancer and it became critical to the authenticity of the collaboration,” she said. The campaign’s popularity helped redefine the Melbourne Football Club and saw it gain international recognition. Suddenly organisations from around the world were contacting Watt about organising similar events, such as a giant pair of blue underwear for prostate cancer, which she did.
“We felt the game wasn’t representing women. They didn’t see themselves on the field or in positions of leadership. We wanted to do something that showed that it valued women’s contributions to the game”
Promoting women’s involvement in AFL through AFLW
After the success of the Pink Lady event, Watt wanted to continue to market AFL and, specifically, the Melbourne Football Club, to women. “[We] were the first football club to support women’s AFL,” she said. “We became the major sponsor of the Victorian women’s football competition; we put the full club behind them.”
Watt worked with Debbie Lee, Community Manager at the Melbourne Football Club, to organise a women’s AFL exhibition match. They treated it like a normal match and were encouraged by the support and attention it received. “It was aired on TV and got good ratings – people started caring. Suddenly the broadcast[ers] were interested and the AFL was interested, and then the AFLW was born,” she said. Watt acknowledged the importance of supporting projects like this, saying that “our players were starting to take pride in it”.
Female football was an untapped opportunity, one that has expanded the club’s audience, with more women participating in grass-roots football than ever before. There are over 460,000 new female players and the number of teams has grown by 76 per cent over the last couple of years. There aren’t enough facilities and staff to cope with the huge growth. “It’s like audience growth utopia,” she said.
Tackling motor neurone disease with the Big Freeze
In 2014, long-term member and former coach of the Melbourne Football Club, Neale Daniher approached the Club and said, “I need your help: I need a slide, I need some ice and I need [the] Queen’s Birthday game.” He wanted to raise $200,000 to find a cure for motor neurone disease, a condition he himself suffers from. Daniher told Watt to think big.
Neale managed to get the media to work together and, in collaboration with the Melbourne Football Club, organised the ‘AHG Walk to the ’G’. Once they reached the MCG, famous footballers slide into a pool of icy water to promote Motor Neurone Disease. This campaign raised $13.9 million through the sales of over 130,000 beanies in its first three years and has become the biggest sports fundraising campaign in Australia.
Female football was an untapped resource, one that has expanded the club’s audience, with more women participating in grass-roots football than ever before.
Through these campaigns, Watt was able to support the rebuild of the Melbourne Football Club by finding a new audience to engage with. You can listen to her closing remarks at the ICON Melbourne Forum in this video.