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Behind the Canberra Raiders’ high-performance partnership with Huawei

While some sponsors are content merely to have their logo plastered across team jerseys, Chinese telecoms giant Huawei has been forging a high-tech partnership with the Canberra Raiders. Mumbrella's Alex Hayes reveals how the tie-up is working.

On the face of it, a sprawling and slightly rundown prefab building in the quiet Canberra suburb of Bruce seems an unlikely place for any marketer to look for lessons in data and partnerships.

But it soon becomes apparent the home of the Canberra Raiders has been slowly transformed into a high-tech, high performance centre, where player and fan data is harnessed and sponsor partnerships leveraged to create an environment which has seen the perennial also-rans turned into NRL heavyweights.

“On any given day, anyone in this league could beat anyone, and it’s those small innovations that give you the advantage,”  says Jason Mathie, commercial and marketing manager for the Raiders.

“To remain successful you’ve got to stay ahead of the game. It’s a simple game, 26 blokes on a field. They’re all trained the same, they’re all built fairly similarly, they’re all analysed to the nth degree during the course of the week.

“Fundamentally what the difference in a result comes down to is attitude, and an innovative approach, that just gives you that minute advantage.”

That same philosophy is being applied off the field to boost membership, with the Raiders one of the fastest growing clubs in the country, almost doubling from 8,300 members in 2014 to more than 15,000 last season.

From sponsorship to partnership

The club has looked to its major sponsor, Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, to help enable its quiet revolution on and off the pitch.

As Mathie explains the club’s relationship with the company, which started six years ago, has morphed into something much more valuable for both parties.

“When Huawei formed this partnership, primarily it was brand awareness, to get greater traction in the Australian market, and the initial one to two years was about engaging the community and introducing Huawei.

“And we had a bit of fun along the way, people didn’t even know how to say Huawei,” he says, pointing to a video the club created where two players were sent onto the streets of Canberra to ask passers by how they pronounce Huawei, rewarding successful participants with a new phone.

“Then fans were starting to ask questions about their products, and staff have been starting to use their devices internally, they assisted us with the wifi install here (the club’s headquarters and training base), and they had some conversations with us about wifi-enabling the stadium”.

“We moved from being the education and branding provider to them being an organisation that were trying to help us with advancement of our company”.

Using data to improve the product

Despite the club’s low tech surroundings (a new training base in the centre of Canberra is proposed to be built in the next couple of years) it has gone about transforming the way it handles data and player management, under the watch of veteran coach and former player Ricky Stuart.

“The players are a stakeholder in this business, they own a part of this business. So the better they contribute and the more they perform well, the better the business is,” says Stuart.

“We need technology there and that’s a big part of our preparation. Being a stakeholder in the club means buying into the culture of the Canberra Raiders, and that’s contributed to us having a little bit more success.”

For Stuart, little improvements to facilities such as Huawei enabling wifi on the training pitch and across the fitness centre has cut hours of time per day from his team’s duties, enabling them to concentrate on the business of football.

He adds: “It’s all about saving time. Collecting data and having the technology there readily available straight after training and after the end of day when you can start working on the preparation is vital.

“Twenty years ago you would never ever have thought it would be where it is today. Just from having the wifi there for our review and preview of video, and for the high performance team to be able to measure straight away after training what a player has done in terms of workloads, knowing where they are physically, makes a big difference.

“At the day’s end we put a report together so we know exactly what the next day holds, and that doesn’t happen without the technology.”

Players are now tracked with GPS through their training sessions

While the players are stakeholders they are also the main commodity for a club with ambitions to take out the premiership title for the first time since 1994. Deciding how and when they should train is one of the many factors that will decide whether they can win the games to achieve that.

To that end, the collection of data happens across the board, from an app where players log everything they eat and drink as well as the amount and quality of sleep they have had, to GPS tracking while they are on the training paddock to measure how far and fast they have been running.

Players also get reminders sent to their devices telling them where they need to be and when, an important evolution for keeping 36 men to an ever-evolving schedule.

Similarly the weights room, low-tech compared to most modern gyms, has been kitted out with computers to measure the amounts of weight being lifted and their velocity, checking no player is overdoing it, or slacking off, and slashing administration time for the strength conditioning coach.

And technology has also improved the workload for the medical team, with the regular tracking and screening of the players’ physical wellbeing outsourced to a computer program.

Raiders player Josh Hodgson is put through his paces with the technology

Now instead of laborious one-on-one assessments with paper charts which need to be transcribed, the players come into a room equipped with Xbox Kinect cameras linked up to Huawei tablets, which automatically track and log those movements and calculate any changes they need to be aware of.

“Our high performance department is probably one of the most important departments in the whole operation in regards to the performance,” says head coach Stuart.

“The biggest factor for me is that the players are the healthiest physically when they get to the sidelines for the game. I’m a coach who is a huge admirer of high performance people who can get the players ready to go in short spaces of time.”

Previously, conducting these screenings while on the road would mean the Raiders hauling hundreds of kilos of expensive kit across the country every other week. Now it’s just a few tablets and Kinnect cameras.

“It allows us to do what we do at HQ anywhere in the world now,” explains football manager John Bonasera.

Thee implementation of the technology has cut the time it takes to screen and assess players for injuries in half, a process they refer to as ‘prehab’, as opposed to the usual rehab.

Coaches and medical staff can uncover underlying problems in seconds

And the technology is now helping to cut costs for the club. Bonasera says the number of missed games by players through injury has gone from 163 in 2013 to 67 last season. To keep the best players consistently on the field together is the key to being successful and in turn helps coaches to reduce squad numbers and the need for additional cover.

But how much sway does the player data have in game-day selection? As strength and conditioning coach Nigel Ashley-Jones points out, gut instinct will always be key.

[Art is never going to go from sport, but science provides the proof all the time,” he says.

That’s a sentiment backed up by Stuart, who says the data now makes his gut instincts measurable.

“I draw a line on the data,” he adds. “As much data as I can possibly have is healthy for me, but I draw a line on it because I feel that a big part of my coaching ability is gut, and you can’t have it drown your coaching philosophies you have, but you can use it.”

Engaging fans and virtual reality

While data has been harnessed on the field to improve the club, marketing boss Mathie has also been working with Huawei behind the scenes to get a better understanding of the fans, and create platforms to liven up the game day experience.

“We took some lessons from the US and realised the game day delivery for us was our bread and butter, and there were 12 opportunities a year to showcase what we stood for,” says Mathie.

“There were people turning up to our games who were quite avid fans, but we didn’t know anything about who they were. They might have a membership card but we didn’t know anything about how they behaved on game day, where they went at different points of the venue or whatever.

“So we used Huawei equipment to track the journey of our fans, and also to engage with them when they were at the ground in terms of implementation of things like virtual reality at the gate. So rather than waiting for the game to stimulate them emotionally we built the game day to be emotional from the gate, and Huawei enabled us to do that.

“It gives us a point of difference from others.”

That virtual reality experience ‘Dare to Play’ was rolled out earlier this year by another club sponsor Dare, which allows fans to see through the eyes of a player as they prepare for a game, from autograph alley to the changing rooms and the walkout onto the pitch.

That experience was facilitated in a partnership with Huawei.

“They [Dare] knew they couldn’t do it on their own, and they asked us for help, and Huawei have said to us for a number of years if we find opportunities to showcase equipment,” says Mathie.

“Even though they have a sponsorship agreement with this club we don’t view them as sponsors, we view them as partners in this venture. We’re trying to improve our business, their business and the business interests of our other corporate partners.

“And the reason they have become our longest standing sponsor and value them so highly is because they view their transaction with us as a partnership, and not a sponsorship.”

Indeed the brand is integrated into other parts of the club’s marketing, from game-day giveaways for lucky fans to being the camera used to capture the footage it live-streams across its social platforms, giving fans an intimate back-room experience of the club and engaging them during the week and before and after matches. That is amplified with a Huawei watermark on footage and tagging the brand and the phone used on image posts on social media.

Ben Pollock, media and digital manager at the Raiders, says that ability to directly communicate with fans has transformed their mindset.

“It makes us as important a media provider as anyone else, we’re able to provide our own content to fans now,” he says.

“It’s totally flipped the way we approach PR and marketing. We still do a lot of external stuff as well, but the stuff we’re doing internally has become so important for us as a business.”

Head coach Stuart has also forged a close relationship with the company, which has supported his Ricky Stuart Foundation which is centred around helping families cope with children with autism.

Amongst support given by Huawei was handing over its shirtfront sponsor position to the foundation for one of its live televised matches.

“It was a wonderful treat for the foundation to be front of jumper for a TV game,” says Stuart. “Not only that but the foundation got so much coverage out of it, so much mileage out of it from Erin Molan who was presented it on The Footy Show to Timmy Gilbert who had it on on the Today Show, and it was the gesture of Huawei that gave us that opportunity.

The Ricky Stuart Foundation benefitted from the front of jersey placement courtesy of Huawei. Source: Raiders.com.au

“So my relationship goes a little bit deeper than just a club coach, and we have a unique relationship because it goes outside of the Canberra Raiders. The foundation doesn’t have anywhere near the success if it doesn’t have this business partnership with Huawei.”

Last season Huawei opted to extend its six year agreement for another three seasons.

So what do they expect to see happening over the next three years?

Mathie points to three areas: helping to improve the club’s connectivity; helping with recruitment of players from schools and regional areas, and helping advance the club technologically.

“Basically we go to them with a problem and ask if you can remedy it with technology,” he adds.

“It’s not we give you X and you give us Y, they’ve got a business objective of innovation and they know we do as a business as well.”

Alex Hayes travelled to Canberra as a guest of Huawei

Huawei’s head of sponsorship Lisa Connors will be talking about the tie-up at next month’s Sports Marketing Summit. Find out more and get tickets by clicking the banner below.

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