AFL returns surrounded by fans, sponsors and a heightened appetite for advertising

Ahead of the AFL's triumphant return to the MCG and to TV screens tonight, Mumbrella's Zoe Wilkinson speaks to Foxtel's Martin Medcraf, Seven's Kurt Burnette and hears from the AFL Media's Julian Dunne, about partnerships, ratings and the excitement of footy fans that the game is returning to normality.

The AFL returns tonight with the 2020 premiers, the Richmond Tigers, facing off against the Carlton Blues. And across the board, the AFL and its broadcast partners, Seven and Foxtel, agree that the sense of excitement from fans is palpable.

“It’s great to see that there is such great interest across the sports as they come in. I think it’s a really good sign, it’s a really good signal of the health of the advertising marketplace. It’s a really good signal of Australia coming together to watch the sports that they love so much” Seven’s chief revenue officer, Kurt Burnette, says.

“It’s a significant moment in time, and one where they’re all very excited.”

2020 was a complicated year for the AFL; taking a 12-week hiatus during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, re-launching in June, and quickly moving the entire operation of the league to Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide as Melbourne entered lockdown.

But despite the challenges, AFL head of marketing and content Julian Dunne tells the Mumbrellacast the league maintained its close follower base, and 2021 is for the fans.

“We had 94% of our members retained through COVID, even in a period where most of them couldn’t get to games. And this is sort of going back to that point that the game is, and the club they support is really a part of who they are and their identity, and their loyalty is incredible,” Dunne says.

“So we’re doing as much as we can to thank our fans and trying as much as we can to get them – to increase our stadium capacities and get them as much access as we can for the season ahead because I think there’s a lot of pent up demand after a year particularly in Victoria and New South Wales where our fans couldn’t get to games. So I think just trying to open up access as much as we can is going to be critical and engage them in the process.”

Martin Medcraf

Foxtel Media sport sales and partnerships director, Martin Medcraf, is also optimistic about the season, following 33% audience growth and the pre-season coverage breaking audience records.

“We also have exceptional sponsor interest, and for fans, the season is wide open, with a dozen teams in the mix for the flag. Tonight’s first bounce can’t come quickly enough,” he says.

Of course, at the heart of the AFL broadcast will be Toyota, the league’s premier partner since 2004. Also returning to the broadcast is 4 Pines, Ashley & Martin, Chemist Warehouse, Drummond Golf, Harvey Norman, KFC, McDonald’s, Pointsbet, Sportsbet and Steel Blue.

Foxtel’s new partners for the season are Ampol, Hungry Jacks, La Trobe Financial, and AAMI, which follow on from new sponsors of the AFLW and pre-season, BHP and PlayStation.

Medcraft says “each of our sponsors is integral to the upcoming season”, and come after appetite for its sales inventory has picked up from the caution displayed by brands last year.

“While there may have been some initial spending reluctance early last year, 2021 has seen a strong appetite from brands and sponsors. They know that Tier 1 sports like the AFL offer a much-needed form of normalcy, escapism and passion during this time, and it’s the perfect place to engage an audience at scale,” Medcraft explains.

“We’re coming off the highest ratings season for live AFL on Foxtel platforms, and our sponsorship line up has expanded this year. It means that the brands we work with are as excited about the season as we are.”

Kurt Burnette

Building on last year’s debut season, Colgate has also returned to the AFL as a broadcast sponsor, and it is one of the partnerships Burnette is excited to see come to life. Seven is also welcoming Pernod Ricard’s Irish whisky Jameson as a new broadcast sponsor, as well as AIA Health Insurance. Burnette says every brand Seven is working with this AFL season has a different objective and is celebrating the creativity that is coming out of the partnerships.

“There’s many different clients, brands, that have come back, either returning or new, and each of them have a different objective as they should, and we’ve been working with each of them to create a bespoke solution that meets that objective,” Burnette states.

“And they are very, very different, but then what people will see when they watch is seamless integration and relevant integration, and that’s the type of integration and creative that resonates. [It’s] proven that if you can deliver great content in context then cut through is super strong.”

Burnette asserts there’s “no better code” to be able to deliver brand building or product sales than the AFL as the 30 second breaks which take place between goals are “the most powerful 30 seconds in marketing”.

Despite the hiatus, a condensed fixture and speed rounds, last year’s AFL season delivered growth in the free to air and subscription ratings. For Foxtel, which also broadcasts the games on streaming service Kayo, 2020 was the highest rating season for live AFL ever, delivering an average audience of 283,000 viewers across the season.

“We know winter sports subscribers are back in big numbers based on the NRL opening weekend, and we have the Telstra Live Pass changes supporting that growth. So we are confident that we’ll do very well against last year’s AFL performance metrics,” Medcraft says.

The Tigers claiming the premiership in 2020 | Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos

For Seven, the finals series in particular delivered ratings success, up 11% in ratings from the previous year. The grand final reached 2.979 million metro viewers, including 1.583 million Melburnians watching in lockdown. Communal viewing in the city was strictly limited under ongoing lockdown conditions which meant only two people can visit a household, once a day, likely giving the ratings a boost.

Burnette hopes to see last year’s ratings performance carry on into this season.

“We have come out of an extraordinary year so we’ve forecast to have a similar type of viewing that it was last year. I think we’ll see ups and downs if you’re making comparisons to last year, which you really can’t, but if you were I think there’ll be pockets of when there was full lockdown and how does that change how people were viewing last year versus this year,” Burnette explains.

“I think the way the AFL has marketed themselves, the way that we presented ourselves in terms of marketing, you’ll see some interesting things. The way that we were able to use all of our assets to promote the AFL and use the AFL to promote all of our other assets… I think we’re in for a very, very strong year again.”

Julian Dunne

And of course, with fans back in the stands there are opportunities for brands to take advantage of on-site activations. Currently, Victorian stadiums will be operating at 50% capacity, Adelaide, Perth and Sydney operating at 75%, and no restrictions are in place in Queensland.

Already announced is an activation from McDonald’s to celebrate grass roots football – ‘Macca’s Half-Time Heroes’, and Continental Tyres hosting a special drive-in screening of tonight’s game at the Coburg drive-in theatre, which includes free food, giveaways and live sounds of the MCG.

Dunne says that the great thing about the AFL is that fans come for the game itself, and the pace heightens their engagement. So despite social distancing remaining a serious consideration, the AFL is ready to put on a show for fans.

“We’ve still got a whole lot of challenges around stadium capacities and how we work with different state governments and venues and our fans to communicate those issues. It won’t quite be a normal season and things change pretty rapidly, but really excited to have the season starting,” Dunne says.

To hear more about the AFL’s season launch and more from Julian Dunne, tune into the latest episode of the Mumbrellacast. Subscribe here to get the latest episodes straight to your podcast feed.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.