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Volume 7 No. 149
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Hangin' With ... AFL Commercial Operations Manager Darren Birch

AFL Commercial Operations Manager Darren Birch
Australian Football League Commercial Operations Manager DARREN BIRCH started in sports administration with AFL side Brisbane Lions in '98. After learning the consumer side of the business for several years, he moved to Melbourne to take a position with the AFL as the league's membership manager. He eventually took on the ticketing and licensing portfolio and helped develop a shared services model for club memberships that all 18 clubs now use. In '10, he was promoted to GM of commercial operations, heading up the league's non-broadcast revenue drivers. Two years ago, he was tasked with the marketing of the business and he is currently looking at diversifying the AFL audience through digital channels as well as non-traditional methods including a possible esports venture. Birch spoke with SBD Global about the AFL's place in the Australian sports landscape and how esports could bring a new, younger audience to the league.

On his role with the AFL ...
Darren Birch: With the latest broadcast negotiation for the next five years, the organization under [AFL CEO] Gillon McLachlan, we’ve realigned some executive portfolios and now my role is general manager of growth, digital & audiences. So really looking at how we take the business forward into new audiences, new territories, new segments, how we look to transform the business digitally and how we continue to grow revenue, look at growing our brand equity and growing consumption. ... Our non-broadcast revenues right now are around A$200 million ($149M) a year. We’ve done a pretty good job at commercializing and monetizing our business, so the next challenge over the next five to six years is to look to see how to diversify the other parts of our business we can grow revenue from. The other piece is to continue to grow our brand equity -- what our brand stands for, what it represents -- and how you continue to grow that part of our business so that people feel connected and that there is a cultural connection to our brand as much as a transaction connection.

On the challenges of growing the brand ...
Birch: Australia is a really diverse population right now. So how we as a game stay relevant to that population is important. How we grow our business through children and women and continue to have a diverse range of products to be inclusive for our population. The other part is how we grow our game in the northern markets in Australia where we [the AFL] are not traditionally the No. 1 code. In the digital space, we see digital as an enabler for all those things. ... Whether it be digital streaming or in the social channels. ... It's harder today with the fragmentation of media and media channels to get to your fan. Everyone says, "Oh we'll just use digital." But you've got to have good, compelling content, you've got to get it into the right channel at the right time. Then you've got to be cognizant that different content is required for different segments in those different channels. It's not like taking an ad out in the paper or putting a commercial on TV anymore.

On moving into esports ...
Birch: I went to a conference in New York about eight weeks ago, and about 35 percent of the conference was about esports. We’ve had a console game for a long time and we’ve always thought, "Where do we go in this gaming space?" That conference changed my perspective on the opportunity in that space. In particular, around the opportunity to connect with a new and broader audience for our brand. It is very similar to how we started a women’s league. Eight of our teams now have women’s football teams. It created a new audience for us, it brought new revenue from different sponsors. It allowed us to use different channels, in terms of distribution of that content. And 70% of the audience attending games or consuming content had never been to a men’s game of football. I thought about that and figured creating a women’s league is maybe no different than creating an esports league to diversify your audience.

On how the AFL could make esports work ...
Birch: When you think about what the league is good at, it's good at managing clubs. It's good at developing talent, governance, integrity. We know how to relate to fans and create fandom. We have a media business and esports is very much a media ecosystem. So you start to think about how this is just another form of sport. So how can we use our existing expertise within our business? Some of our clubs already have a men's team, a women's team and a netball team. It's not that great of a step to move into having an esports team -- which brings you an even broader, more diverse audience. That audience may have no interest in your men’s football team, but it has a significant interest to your club’s sponsors and stakeholders that are looking to connect to a millennial audience. ... Using our expertise and the ability to deliver another form of league or competition is just an extension of what we already do.
On how it may look ...
Birch: If we venture into this space, we wouldn't use our game. We would look to partner with one of the bigger, non-sport video games, which would have a bigger global reach. If you look at the marketplace, the sports games are, in relative terms, much smaller than the fantasy strategy games. I went to a tournament in Sydney and it was very much like going to the Australian Open. The audience comes in to watch two teams play each other like a match, it lasts 45 minutes to an hour. The audience is highly engaged and highly passionate. When the match finishes, they eat, they drink, they buy merchandise. It's really no different. We're about a month into doing our due diligence on what is the opportunity here. We see other sport clubs and leagues moving into this space, so we wouldn't be doing our job properly if we weren't investigating it.

On where events could take place ... 
Birch: We purchased Etihad Stadium in Melbourne in November. It is a 54,000-seat stadium with a roof that closes. In terms of events, it is a multi-purpose venue. So looking for content to bring to that stadium is a consideration. It is very embryonic at the moment, but it is something that we're looking at. We certainly have the skill set to pivot to another sport. ... Could we actually move into an esports environment? That is something that we are taking a bit of time to have a look at. ... If we're gonna make a move into this space it is sooner rather than later. It is hard to put a time frame on it. There are some very passionate people in the esports environment that are looking to partner with people, particularly in this country, to re-position esports. We would probably look to partner rather than go it alone.

Hangin' With runs each Friday in SBD Global.