Rugby’s Magnificent (or Manipulative) Marketing

Hey American tough guys, ever consider playing football without pads? And no, not out on the field with your boys for fun (sorry for the gendered language). I mean an actual game, full on, full speed, full contact, full collision. The fact is, you can’t. If official football games were played without pads, athletes would get horrifically injured, even die on a regular basis. Heck, football is dangerous enough with pads and helmets. But down here in the Southern Hemisphere, we have a very speedy collision sport with no pads called rugby. I’m still getting my head around the different sporting forms of rugby that exist. A few things are for certain though – it is big, big business and can be very dangerous, the latter of which you might never know by watching the mainstream media.

Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) is akin to the United States’ National Football League (NFL). Both organizations represent the pinnacle of male sporting success in their respective parts of the world. Rugby League allows for rather unrestricted tackling between players. Hence the collisions in Rugby League are often times very similar to those we Americans see in the NFL, minus the helmets and pads. Many people in New Zealand – where I now reside – tell me Rugby League is about as violent as a sport can get.

In their article, “Selling Permissible Violence,” Brett Hutchins and Murray Phillips dissect Rugby League’s evolution from the 1950s up until the 1990s. Using Norbert Elias’s concept of the technization process, Hutchins and Murray describe how with the advent of color television and other forms of media technology in the 1970s, Australian sports fans began to see how truly violent Rugby League was. Injuries resulting in bleeding were more viscerally visible; with different camera angles and slow-motion replays, fans could see eye gouging and other forms of cheating.

Improved technology hurt Rugby League’s image, and fans began tuning out. In response, Rugby League enforced a series of rule changes that increased penalties for unfair play and to some degree, decreased the sport’s violence. These changes demonstrate that at its core, big time sport is big time business. In order to maximize profits, Rugby League executives had to account for society’s technological advances and reframe the way their sport was presented to the public.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Rugby League got it right, launching a highly successful public relations campaign that reformed the sport’s image. Using singing sensation Tina Turner in tandem with the sport’s biggest, hunkiest stars, a series of commercials were constructed that made Rugby League family friendly again (see video here).

Following this campaign, Rugby League profits skyrocketed. Utilizing ever emerging technological developments, the sport’s marketers zoned in on society’s sweet spot, quenching fans’ thirst for sporting violence without exceeding a violence threshold that would decrease profits.

Today, Rugby League is still going strong, and over two decades removed from the early 1990s campaign, we can see numerous similarities in the way the sport markets itself to a variety of viewers, but especially to males and females from middle-class groups. Identify the multiple similarities between the commercial with African American Tina Turner from 1990, and the 2013 version with Aboriginal/Indonesian singer Jessica Mauboy:

Note how Rugby League is presented in both commercials as family friendly, how the professional male players are connected to suburbanite male and female fans of different ages, and how the sport is celebrated uncritically as fun without any problems (click here for another contemporary example targeting females specifically).

However, thinking more broadly about rugby, we know problems exist. Recent tragedies in New Zealand show that even in rugby’s less risky versions, severe physical injuries can and do happen, which on occasion can lead to death. Furthermore, being a highly male-driven sport with excessive physical collisions, it is not terribly uncommon for fighting to erupt in games. In one recent case, a father forced his 9-year-old son to punch an opposing youth player, and at the highest level, rugby stars cope disproportionately with high anxiety that can lead to non-sporting violence (see my response here).

Hence, the technization process has led rugby’s marketers to alter society’s primary perceptions of the sport. It is not that society is totally blinded from rugby’s risks. Rather, a sanitized, glamorized version of rugby is presented as the sport’s dominant image, because at its core sport is business, and businesses must adhere to market demand.

Picture via Wikicommons.

Dig deeper:

  1. Watch this Rugby League commercial that targets women in particular. In what different ways are women and girls connected to Rugby League and how might some of these roles reify traditional gender norms?
  2. Each year, the NFL supports breast cancer awareness (see here). Given that the NFL is a highly profitable entity and widening its market base, how might the NFL profit from this good cause?
  3. Think about your favorite form of entertainment – it does not have to be a sport. What ugly sides of that industry might be hidden from public knowledge, and why?
  4. How has the technization process changed the ways you consume entertainment, and how might others benefit financially from your consumption?