Unable to feel any limbs, soaked from rain right through to my soul. Waterproof jackets and windcheaters preparing their CV’s as they were failing miserably at their one job…but I didn’t care. My idol, Ronan O’Gara was after selling the sweetest of dummies to a Wasps prop before giving a little pop pass sending Denis Leamy over in the corner. The 16th man erupted like I’d never heard before. There was a crush of drowned supporters and I was in the middle of it. I barely got a glimpse of Leamy touching down that was the sheer madness of the whole moment. Munster had got the all important score to deny Wasps a losing bonus point. It would secure us topping the “Pool of Death” and send us on the way to lifting the Heineken Cup on the 24th of May 2008.
Looking back at this moment it was like the perfect cocktail of ingredients. You had an incredibly strong team on the pitch filled with star names like O’Gara, O’Connell and Howlett backed by through and through men of the people like Quinlan, Leamy, Wallace and Hayes. The link between the supporters and the team was at its peak. We all felt like a part of the team. It was just as much our duty as fans to beat Wasps as it was the players on the field. The “16th Man” working on all cylinders lifting the 15 men on the field. It’s a night I’ll never forget and I’m sure the 20 thousand others there that night will also never forgot.
The Finest Hour for the 16th Man??
Fast forward to the 18th of November 2008. The newly revamped Thomond Park was having its official opening. Munster Rugby was striving having signed very lucrative deals with Adidas and Toyota. They had just won the Heineken Cup in Cardiff the previous May. It was the 30th anniversary of their most famous triumph versus the might of The All Blacks.
As fate would have it who were the lucky team in town to help Munster mark this momentous occasion. Why none other than the same all-conquering and seemingly invincible New Zealand All Blacks. It was the must-see event of the year. David vs Goliath seemed like fair fight compared to the task that stood in front of Munster. Tickets were like gold dust. My father’s ear was burnt off him from me repeatedly asking if he managed to get his hands on a couple. Just 48 hours before the main event my worry lifted and I was in ecstasy.
The country shut down. There wasn’t a word in the press about anything else. Munster Rugby was box office viewing all over the world on that night. The 33-1 outsiders against the greatest dynasty to ever pick up a rugby ball. From everything that happened that night whether it was the Army helicopter dropping the match ball to the field or the Munster contingent of Kiwis performing their own “Haka” as a call out to their fellow countrymen everything went perfectly (bar a late Joe Rokocoko try robbing Munster of an even more incredible victory than their first, but we might leave that minor detail out).
The Munster Rugby brand was riding the crest of a wave. Packed houses at every game, jersey and merchandise sales going through the roof, every young boy in the province picking up a rugby ball hoping to emulate their idols and a family-like link between the supporters and the team.
The 16th Man Now
It’s 2016 now and boy how times have changed. Munster Rugby is in the doldrums. With Connacht completing the most compelling of Pro 12 victories last season, Munster lie languished as the 4th best team in the country. The excellent facilities at Thomond Park are now instead host to a regular attendance closer to fifteen thousand people. Even on the famous European matches that the Munster brand is synonymous with, the Munster name emblazed on the seats in the stand is clearly visible. It’s a sad sight for people like me who were there for the good old days. The world famous atmosphere of days gone by now reminds you more of a dull hush at a funeral where the “16th Man” is the body laid out in the coffin.
The appeal to wear the red jersey is now gone. Once when we were attracting the likes of record All Blacks try-scorer Christian Cullen followed by the man to usurp his record Doug Howlett. Now was are barely able to attract the best in Ireland. When Robbie Henshaw made the decision to leave Connacht before the end of last season he looked like the perfect man to inject a bit of life back into Munster Rugby. A young bulldozing Irish centre on the cusp of taking his first step into greatness. The hole in Munster’s midfield would be filled. With the likes of Conor Murray, Keith Earls and the mercurial talent of Simon Zebo in tow it looked like there was life in the old dog of Munster Rugby yet. Painstakingly long days went by and there was no news before ultimately the bubble burst and the knife was twisted a little more. Henshaw had decided to don the Royal Blue of Leinster. If a decision like this was made 10 years ago by an Irish talent the IRFU would have chastised him before, making his mind up for him. This was the same Leinster that up until ten years ago barely existed. It was a blow that hurt more than a lot than the recent defeats on the pitch.
What Happened to the 16th Man??
Where had Munster Rugby’s identity gone? It had been a long time coming but they rested too long on their laurels when times were good and had taken everything far too much for granted. The family-like club feeling that harboured most of my adolescence had disappeared and there were no signs of it coming back. There is an abundance of reasons why this has happened. I’m not trying to make little the retirement of club legends like Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes to name a few or the recent downturn in fortunes of the team on the field but the biggest reason is the clear disconnect with the fans. If you asked the majority of young kids nowadays to name a Munster player you’d have those who would say “Murray” or “Zebo” but I guarantee that this is from their exploits in the green of Ireland or the development of their own personal brands through sponsorships and appearances.
Munster’s supporter core is aging and they do not know how to stay in touch with the younger generation. A generation born on the internet compared to my generation which was born into Munster Rugby fed to them at a young age by being taken to matches week in, week out. This is the generation of young kids which you would hope that one day be the next Paul O’Connell or the next Ronan O’Gara and there is nothing done to appeal to this age group. Now this plight isn’t solely burdened to Munster, it also happens to the ostentatious world of Premiership football. Look at Manchester City a team who has won the Premiership 2 out of the last 5 times. A team where the chequebook has no limit. A team with one of the best managers in the world and some of the greatest players but yet they only fill their stadium when one of the “Big Four” teams roll into town.
For the purpose of this blog though I will focus more what on I know and what I know is Munster Rugby. The disconnect with the fans is the most glaring of issues and if this doesn’t change soon then we can forget about success for anytime soon. You can forget about higher profits, higher turnover, higher merchandise sales and most importantly higher attendances. An extremely worrying issue that causes a lot of this disconnect is the distinct lack of an effective social media presence from Munster. For a generation born in a world of like, comments and shares this is where you want to be connecting to them. This is where Munster need to get their attention and to light a fire inside them that will result in more people caring about Munster Rugby. They are hopefully the next generation of legends so they need to be appealed to.
Want an example? Look no further than the UFC
We are living in revolutionary times so it’s either time to adapt or fade into insignificance. The power of effective social media cannot be understated. Take a look at the current sports that are growing exponentially year on year and in some cases month on month. For instance, the UFC has blown up in the last 3 years. Before that, it had plateaued since its rise from obscurity in 1993 and was on the verge of going stale. The big stars were all aging and the UFC needed a new strategy. This would have been worrying times for the owners as they never had to face a challenge like this.
Three years later and the ink is still drying on a 4 Billion Dollar deal to sell the franchise to mega company WME-IMG. It’s hard to think looking back three years ago where this valuation would have ever come from. Back then UFC was following a similar business model to Boxing and it was in danger of becoming boring. This plan was far too safe and it had been done way too much before. They were a company relying on PPV to drive their price but they weren’t getting the buys needed. There were in a transitional era and they entered the dangerous world of Super Fights to attract the eyes. They had what they thought was a master plan, something boxing was afraid of doing, but what everyone cried out for the sport to do. Boxing hadn’t had a super fight since the days of Tyson, Lewis and Holyfield as they felt it was too dangerous for their superstars. Why risk their reputation over one fight when they would increase buys having them around longer.
But the UFC thought different. They had Anderson Silva the Brazilian Superman who had steamrolled everything in his way since he entered the octagon. He even fought at Light Heavyweight against the best in that division and he was all conquering. This all changed at UFC 117 where he fought American trash talking expert and fans favourite Chael Sonnen. Sonnen was known for running his mouth and not caring who he upset. He was PPV gold and the UFC thought matching him with the greatest of all time was the plan to set the world alight. They never expected it to turn out the way it did. Sonnen beat Silva on points until the final minute of the fight when Silva dug deep and won with an arm triangle submission. It was Silva’s greatest challenge and the world could not stop talking about a rematch. The UFC were rubbing their hands at the thought of the amount of money they could reel in by promoting this fight to levels unseen before. They ran a 30-minute two-part documentary called UFC Primetime the week of the fight and they had multiple billboards throughout America. It was a level of promotion that was unheard of in the UFC.
On July 7th, 2012 at UFC 148 the rematch took place. Once again Silva would be the victor after a much easier fight than the previous one. Unfortunately for the UFC it hadn’t been the spectacle they wanted. The quality of the fights had delivered although the number of PPV buys hadn’t. It was still far below the record at the time which was held by UFC 100. Their plan failed and they didn’t know where to look. Traditional methods of promotion failed and they hadn’t a backup plan. There were a series of meetings held to determine what to do next.
Their next idea was to have a Super Fight between either Silva and Canadian Superstar George St. Pierre or Silva and Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones. The logistics of each fight were too difficult for them to organise though as negotiations with the fights broke down over money. The UFC was in a rut but they were lucky that their fan base was very young. They took a look at this market and it helped them to no end. On Youtube, fan-made highlight reels were hugely popular. The UFC understood that this is where they needed to market their brand. They needed to make it cool again and they had the money to do so. They never expected what happened next.
Step up The Notorious and the UFC start using Social Media Heavily
Around this time Dubliner Conor McGregor was becoming the Lightweight champion of Cage Warriors promotion and the online community loved him. There were petitions, hashtags and all kinds of promotions to get the UFC to sign him. UFC President Dana White along with well-known commentator Joe Rogan and owner Lorenzo Fertitta were being hounded by Irish fans to sign McGregor to the point that in February 2013 the UFC signed McGregor to a multi-fight deal.
On the 6th of April 2013, the UFC’s fortunes changed dramatically. It was UFC Stockholm and Mcgregor was making his debut against American striker Marcus Brimage. The unorthodox McGregor walked out to an incredible amount of Irish fans and stopped the contest in the first minute of the very first round. Afterwards, Mcgregor during his post-fight interview uttered the word “Dana, Sixty G’s baby” after the interview the clip went viral all over the internet and a star was born. The UFC rejoiced they had their new promotional campaign and now they had the charismatic, brash, red-blooded Irishman to launch it with.
The mixture of McGregor’s ability both in the ring and on the mic along with the brilliance of the UFC’s new promotional campaign was gold for the company. They completely changed their approach to promotion and marketing. Their idea was to move everything towards the internet with the hope that McGregor’s appeal would result in PPV buys. They revamped their social media strategy. Their Twitter account became far more active. They changed their name after every event to match the name of the next event and keep it fresh in people’s minds. All of the fighters were urged to become more active in social media. Their Twitter handles started to be used as a form of identification for them as much as their in-ring nicknames. The UFC held live streams on their Twitter account as Q&A sessions with the fighters for the fans. All of the fights on the preliminary cards at UFC events were live streamed on Facebook for free. The interaction levels with the fans were at an all time high. Whether this was from the company itself or any of its assets.
On the 18th of May 2014, the UFC launched UFC Embedded to replace all of its countdown shows that were being shown on television. They recognised that this was a dying medium and it was a masterstroke on their part. The hour long, high cost and high production level shows were replaced by a series of 10-12 minute Vlogs detailing the lives of the fighters competing at an event on the week of fight week. It was an all access pass to everything they go through to be a fighter. It became huge as it was free content and it was content you never got to see up until that point. The UFC struck gold and there were as many people logging onto Youtube to see the Embedded videos as there was buying the PPV’s.
This type of effective marketing and social media strategy allowed the UFC to reach heights it never reached before. It has grown astronomically since the commencement of this plan and now has overtaken boxing as the number one combat sport in the world. The evidence alone is written in the cheque from WME-IMG. Being lead by McGregor the UFC has broken its own PPV record twice in 2016 alone and is well on it’s way to eclipsing the PPV record set by long awaited boxing fight between undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr. and the man everyone thought to finally beat him, Manny Pacquiao. That fight had 4.6 million PPV buys while the recent rematch between McGregor and the only man to beat him in the UFC Nate Diaz holds the current UFC record at 1.7 million buys.
This is only the tip of the iceberg for the UFC and if they continue on their current trend of growth, now that they have even more money behind them it won’t be long before they beat the record. They have the face in McGregor. Anyone who questions that should look at McGregor’s “retirement” tweet. A single tweet that the man himself said was nothing but a bit of harmless fun until it exploded. It has as of writing this 162 thousand retweets and 190 thousand favourites. It completely smashed the interaction towards Kobe Bryant’s “Dear Basketball” retirement tweet the previous November and it isn’t too far off Leicester City’s tweet to announce that they had becoming champions, which is the most shared sports tweet of all time.
What can Munster learn from this?
Simple, the moral of all of this is that the UFC is a success story of effective social media strategy. The saved their business from stagnating using a well thought out social media plan and adapted to the changing world around them. “Adapt or Die” a quote made famous by P.W. Botha is the challenge that faces Munster Rugby. Either they accept to change their social media strategy to match the current world we live in like the UFC did or they will fade into nothingness. The current generation doesn’t remember the successes of days past they only look to the future and at the moment it isn’t very bright. Munster Rugby is one of the institutions of the game like the All Blacks that they famously defeated in 1978 but unlike the same All Blacks, they walk a tightrope of insecurity.
Effective changes are needed and Munster has some of the tools in place for these changes. On the field, they recently brought in Rassie Erasmus as their Director of Rugby. They have a core of high-quality players who also have major appeal off the pitch. Munster should be using this to their full advantage just like the other clubs in Ireland are. Unfortunately, this isn’t happening.
Where can they work on?
Munster have a few areas they can work on ASAP:
- Munster doesn’t even have a Facebook page where all the other 3 major teams in the country have verified pages.
- Munster’s website needs updating and needs to appeal to those on the internet. It needs to interact with fans in a way that can help them feel like they are at a match when they might not be able to attend.
- There are facilities to be able to Live Stream games on the website or at least to run live commentary of games.
- More interaction on the website is also needed. This can be done through competitions or having somewhere where you can submit questions to be answered by the players.
Video content is huge now and it’s the most influential form of interaction. In 2017 all major interaction will be by video. This is due to features such as Facebook Live and Twitter now also giving you the ability to stream live. The NFL have adopted this feature and will be showing games this season live on Twitter for free. Last season’s Champions League and Europa League finals were all live streamed on Youtube and this is only the beginning of this trend. Munster can either decide to run with this trend or risk falling further behind.
One of the most popular strategies that the UFC use is having their fighters run live Q&A sessions on their Twitter page where fans can submit questions through tweets and they are answered on the spot immediately. There’s nothing to stop Munster doing something similar with Zebo, Murray or Earls to name a few. These are small changes that will help massively.
How to bring back the 16th Man
The family feeling needs to return to the club. There needs to be a reason to come to Thomond Park when the success isn’t there and at the moment there isn’t. You are looking for kids that want to grow up to be rugby players, why not do a video a few minutes long with one of the players talking about his journey to pulling on the jersey. The whole social media strategy at Munster needs a revamp.
What can we do for you?
We can help Munster Rugby here at BlueChief. Effective Social Media is what we do and we are damn good at it! We can develop a social media strategy along with Munster or any team that will remove the vulnerability of the brand. The power will be in the hands of the team to put whatever content they want out. We can act as a trusted advisor to these brands. There is a level of success bred into our company here at BlueChief, a similar level of success that the very core of Munster Rugby was built on.
We are part of the Red Army!!
At the end of the day, we here at BlueChief are fans too and we only want what’s best for the teams we know and love. We feel like that is effective Social Media, to reach out to new supporters and show them all that there is to love about your club. In this world where we want everything “right now” and success is expected overnight unless you are willing to change then things will begin to burn away, people begin to forget and the dust gathers on the trophies in the cabinet. You have to stay relevant to stay ahead. Success breeds success and we here at BlueChief are successful, let us help breed some more.