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Opinionista

Rugby, once epitome of societal division, has become unlikely blueprint for future united nation

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Jon Cherry is a business strategist and publisher whose focus is innovation and building better brands.

The Springbok rugby brand has undergone an unbelievable transformation over the past five years. And much of the success of that renewal can be attributed to the two seasons of ‘Chasing the Sun’.

I’ve lost count of how many dedicated channels of golf, football, rugby, motor racing we have available 24/7 on DSTV.

An accessible audience of fans may seemingly look like a dream come true for professional sport associations, but one substantially negative consequence of this oversupply of choice is that what once was a must-see event — like domestic, limited-overs cricket — has dissolved into insignificance.

This is forcing the owners of sporting brands to become far more strategically astute when it comes to successfully marketing and commercialising their products.

Recently some have found an unbelievably powerful tool to win new fans and deepen bonds with the already converted. An approach to sports marketing that isn’t just making brand and code owners a lot of money, but one that is having some surprising knock-on effects that no one could have predicted.

Fast-tracking F1

Before the debut of the Drive to Survive docuseries on Netflix, Formula 1 was an oddity that few Americans cared much about. It was a sport loved mainly by rich, middle-aged Europeans; Jeremy Clarkson would be a typical example. The show was the same processional ritual every season. Races were predictable. Global television viewership was waning.

That was all before Liberty Media, a sports broadcasting company, bought the sport from old Bernie Ecclestone in 2017.

Liberty understood the true challenge that the Formula 1 brand was facing and made a very shrewd diagnosis of the real cause of their problem, old fans.

Instead of continuing to narrowly frame the sport as a series of car races held in traditionally symbolic locations around the world that could only be appreciated by petrolheads, they strategically relabeled the whole thing as an “entertainment product”.

The way they saw it, F1 had everything that a great TV drama could wish for: exotic locations, fast cars, money, young, good-looking combatants all working in teams of highly-trained professionals desperate to spray expensive champagne on one another.

Liberty Media pitched Netflix on the idea of turning the upcoming season’s backstory into a show and hired a specialist production company, Box to Box Films, to craft the unfolding narrative and colourful characters into a kind of reality TV show.

Drive to Survive became a monster hit with audiences in the United States and is the core reason, along with the three new Grand Prix races that are now hosted in the US, that Liberty Media is said to have captured the collective imagination of the elusive American marketplace, and added more than 70 million new, young, fans to the sport.

Welsh football hits the big leagues

Ryan Reynolds (a famed movie star) and Rob McElhenney (who’s just a television actor) followed the same approach when they bought a struggling Welsh football club, Wrexham AFC, in 2021.

Knowing nothing about football, but quite a bit about the entertainment industry, they approached an LA-based production company, Boardwalk Pictures, to turn their new club ownership journey into a TV series.

Again, the problem with Wrexham was that it was a club adored by old, diehard football fans. Before the Reynolds and McElhenny era, the Wrexham AFC brand had effectively died due to younger fans finding the bigger, glamour clubs of the Premier League far more compelling.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Sales pitches: Hollywood goals for Wrexham AFC

The club desperately needed a sprinkling of optimism to draw in new audiences who could be sold a story of what might be possible when Hollywood magic comes to town.

The docuseries Welcome to Wrexham (available on Disney+ in South Africa) has given the club just what they were looking for and has also been the catalyst to earn Wrexham previously unthinkable back-to-back promotions to higher leagues in the premiership.

The popular TV show has not just positively changed the fortunes of the football club but has also been the critical lever for an astounding economic and social boost for the once-struggling Welsh mining town.

Wrexham is now a place that young people feel proud of. Instead of migrating to bigger cities, they’re choosing instead to contribute to the continued success of the town. And all of this… just because of a TV show?

All because of a documentary?

Historically documentary films have always been great arthouse fare. They draw small, intellectually charged audiences, win obscure awards at film festivals like Sundance; a quirky cinema genre usually completely ignored by the mainstream.

But unlike most documentaries that focus on the facts of a story and are usually produced on a shoestring budget, these new sport-themed docuseries productions (that in many examples cost more than $1-million per episode to make) laser in on an unexplored strength of sport that so far has been off-limits to fans; the behind-the-scenes emotional struggle, anguish and joy of the athletes themselves.

Witnessing our heroes endure hardship turns out to be extraordinarily entertaining and powerful. It’s a trick pulled directly from a classic approach to brand building, but amplified by star power and dedicated promotional clout by the world’s biggest streaming platforms.

Springbok rugby

The Springbok rugby brand has undergone an unbelievable transformation over the past five years. It’s not a ridiculous thing to say these days that what was once the epitome of societal division has become a plausible blueprint for a united future of a nation.

And much of the success of that renewal can be attributed to the real, snot-en-trane stories shared through the two seasons of the SuperSport production, Chasing the Sun.

In much the same way that Drive to Survive and Welcome to Wrexham reframed a sporting brand and unleashed some unexpected consequences, Springbok rugby is no doubt probably also surprised by how effective their “bigger than rugby” campaign has been.

The difference in the approach that the Springboks took was not to just see the brand as an opportunity to build the brand through a deeper level of entertainment, but to offer a surprising alternative vision of the future of South Africa — a vision that none of us have ever seen before.

In addition to their sincere commitment to inclusivity and unity throughout the 2023 World Cup tournament, the latest season of the docuseries is a five-hour longform, nation-building advertisement that honestly transcends the boundaries of sport.

Philosophically sport offers a glimpse of the divine in action. Sportsmen and women are the archetypal alphas. In the competitive chaos of the arena, we witness the bravest, strongest, most fantastical versions of ourselves in the extraordinary performances of our heroes.

But through this new show-it-all docuseries format, that metaphysical bond is strengthened further because as mere vulnerable mortals, we also get to see some of our own more familiar weaknesses plague those who we consider to be invincible. It’s in this true reflection of ourselves that we find hope.

Nelson Mandela captured it so perfectly when he famously said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

This new sporting entertainment model really seems to amplify the delivery of that idealised social construct promise. Since the revival of the Springbok rugby brand in 2019, we’re only two World Cup trophies in — lying dormant is an entire country of champions just waiting for their chance to shine too. DM

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  • Steve Davidson says:

    The F1 story was ruined by the arrogant little sh*t Verstappen (a) not appearing in it and (b) his crooked win of his first world title.

    Chasing the Sun is a failure because only people willing to pay DSTV’s ridiculous monthly fee can see it.

    So, while I can understand your having to earn a salary you’re talking a load of rubbish here.

    • Niek Joubert says:

      Verstappen is much more acceptable than that Hamilton with his victimhood, whilst enjoying the fruits of the rich and famous

      • Steve Davidson says:

        Lewis came from a lower class background, where his dad worked two jobs and drove him around the UK for go-kart races, unlike the spoilt brat Verstappen whose equally arrogant and detestable father, who actually never even won one F1 race, made sure he got the best treatment (maybe even intimidating Masi into cheating his son into an undeserved championship?). So, perhaps your racism is shining through when you make disgraceful comments about Hamilton?

    • K P says:

      If you want to watch Chasing the Sun 1, you can do so on RugbyPass TV, which is a free streaming platform. Given that SuperSport funded the project, they have to make their money somehow. But I agree that once they have done that, it would be so great to make it available on other platforms. I wouldn’t call it a failure in any sense of the word.

      • Steve Davidson says:

        Thanks for that KP. You won’t believe it, but I just found that out this morning on my regular RugbyPass email! Let’s hope DSTV don’t squash it when they find out. I wouldn’t put anything past them.

  • graham hendricks says:

    United future for a nation? Let them eat rugby 🏉😜 balls? I have DSTV. I do not watch Chasing The Sun. I do not support the Boks. Lessgo the Mighty All Blacks ⚫.

    • K P says:

      With all due respect, you’re missing out. It’s only you choosing to steal your own joy. I think you’d find that it is a deeply moving story, regardless of whether you support the Boks or not. Try it out 😉

    • Heinrich Holt says:

      Supporting the All Blacks and still having DSTV? Indeed, you are caught in a time zone.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      Apt that you have a black hole at the end of your post – that’s where Kiwi rugby is headed over the next decade as it loses relevance at home and competition abroad.

  • graham hendricks says:

    United future for a nation? Let them eat rugby 🏉😜 balls? I have DSTV. I do not watch Chasing The Sun. I do not support the Boks. Lessgo the Mighty All Blacks ⚫.

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      No doubt you are a legacy Cape Newlands All Blacks supporter totally blinkered and caught in a pre-’94 time warp. You make yourself sad.
      The Springbok rugby brand has not changed – it is simply a sport for real, hard people who do not abide the BS of woke commentators and critics, and simply get on with the job at hand in a most enjoyable way. 4 times world champions – but I guessed you missed that, right?

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Ag shame, man. Your ‘mighty ABs’ are definitely yesterday’s news, and having to watch the SA teams making the most of the new N-S axis in rugby UNION while they wallow in the misery of a truly second rate Pacific Whatever group of nations. Serves the NZRU right for screwing the SA provincial and national teams after covid. They really should give up union and just play league which they’ve been trying to make union into for all these years.

  • Ritey roo roo says:

    I started watching this out of boredom one Sunday. Wow! I was blown away and very moved too. A surprising amount of access was given to the producers and you see the stories in the background of the players themselves too. A truly excellent production and far superior to many Nextflix documentaries too.

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