Warriors’ Winning Strategy: The Commercial Playbook Behind Their NRL Uprising
This time last year, the Warriors were limping towards the end of their third straight NRL season in COVID limbo, jettisoned in Australia.
Head coach Nathan Brown stepped down midway through 2022 after a fruitless 18 months at the helm and the Warriors finished the year with just six wins – the equal-lowest tally in the club’s history. Players, staff and fans alike remained committed to the cause but weary, with the prospect of the team’s permanent return to their Auckland base the sole neutron of positive energy to cling to.
With two weeks of the 2023 NRL regular season left, the Warriors are riding high in third place to confirm their spot in the playoffs for the first time in five years and just the second occasion since the club reached the 2011 grand final.
The hire of rookie coach Andrew Webster – a former Warriors assistant who was a key member of Penrith’s 2021-22 premiership-winning staff – has engineered one of the great club turnarounds of the modern era, instilling defensive grit and consistency rarely associated with the competition’s most notoriously enigmatic club. Astute recruitment and individual renaissances from the likes of Shaun Johnson and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, among a slew of career-best campaigns, has also been at the heart of the Warriors’ rise from chronic underachievers to title contenders.
To put the 1995 premiership entrants’ achievements this season into context, if the Warriors win their remaining home-and-away fixtures against bottom-four also-rans St George Illawarra and the Dolphins, they will equal club records set by the revered 2002 combination for most consecutive wins (8) and most wins in a regular season (17).
The Warriors have produced the undisputed feelgood narrative of the 2023 NRL season and arguably the New Zealand sporting story of the year despite a World Cup-laden calendar, while they are making rapid inroads into the monolithic popularity of the national sport, rugby union.
Winning makes the job easier for most departments of a sporting franchise as a business, but the Warriors’ commercial performance has mirrored the team’s on-field heroics – and it’s as much to do with strategy and hard work off the paddock as it is piggybacking off a healthy win-loss ratio.
HOTTEST TICKET IN TOWN
The Warriors’ lofty position on the NRL ladder has been buttressed by chalking up elusive victories along Australia’s eastern seaboard. But their watershed campaign is becoming characterised by a string of rowdy sellouts at their temporarily dormant spiritual home, Mt Smart Stadium.
Their average home attendance is over 22,000 – the highest since the Warriors’ 1995 foundation year (when the ground’s capacity was greater) and fourth across the NRL. As well as seats in the stands, demand for corporate hospitality and Warriors gear is exceeding demand.
The presence of homegrown global sporting superstars such as UFC champion Israel Adesanya and NBA veteran Steven Adams sideline at Mt Smart has become a fortnightly occurrence, but merely another facet of the boisterous carnival atmosphere accompanying every Warriors home fixture.
“We always had a plan this year around reinventing our game-day experience and making something everyone talked about and wanted to come along to and experience – to be part of the event, not just the football,” Warriors CEO Cameron George explains.
“To our staff’s credit, their planning and execution – coupled up with the results on the field – it’s just seen our gamedays explode to levels we’ve never seen before: sellouts occurring 10-plus days in advance, sponsors and partnerships banging the door down, corporate facilities being sold out months in advance, and our merchandise just running out the door.
“That all comes about from planning and ambition, so it’s a real privilege to sit back and watch it unfold for our fans and our team.”
For the first time since it reverted from Ericsson Stadium to Mt Smart Stadium in 2005, the venue has a naming-rights sponsor; it has been known as Go Media Stadium Mt Smart since May, another marker of the Warriors’ renewed cachet.
The synergy between the fanbase, the team and the club is palpable, creating an electricity rarely witnessed in live sports in New Zealand – certainly uncommon across an entire season. Inclusivity and affordability has also been central to the gameday policy.
“Our fans are everything, they’re special, they’re loud, they’re proud and it’s just a privilege to be a part of our fans’ lives – that’s the way we see it internally,” George gushes.
“We feel really privileged that we can provide so many people with so much happiness from time to time. That’s not lost on me personally, how much this club means to New Zealand in general as well as fans around the globe.
“Part of the philosophy this year was reconnecting with New Zealand … on and off the field. To do that, you’ve got to come up with different initiatives to engage with as many people as you possibly can, celebrating our wins through different types of deals to encourage people to buy a seat.
“Now people aren’t even waiting for those deals, they’re jumping online and getting their seats because they’re selling out so quick. But we’re making it as affordable as possible, we wanted to be the talk of the country and be the event not to miss – not the event to miss because it was too expensive for families to go.
“You can’t even get Warriors jumpers anywhere, we’ve run out of stock. We’ve occasionally been getting dribs and drabs from Australia to try and fill up the shelves, but the numbers are unbelievable – it’s a record-breaking year in that regard.
“We’re turning over in excess of 120 to 140,000 (dollars) on gameday at Mt Smart through our (merchandise) shop. That’s a lot of product and revenue, and that’s consistent across most gamedays. That doesn’t take into account retail outlets in New Zealand and Australia.”
The visibility and accessibility of Warriors players – established stars and burgeoning cult heroes alike – to the public and the media, along with coach Webster’s passion and infectious affability, are also fanning the flames of Warriors-mania.
After three years of subsisting on Zoom interviews with marooned players, the club has placed itself as a market leader and innovator in the digital space. Content-hungry supporters are lapping up the Warriors media team’s offerings.
“We revamped the way in which we did (digital media) with a change of personnel, on gameday as well,” George says.
“We got really skilled people and the best people into these roles. They’re all doing an awesome job and the players are really buying into it as well.
“The last few years have also helped the players understand how important it is, because we were so disconnected. Trying to work remotely was really challenging, but this was part of the whole strategy to reconnect. The players are obligated to do so, but we’re very appreciative of it and they do such a wonderful job and we’re very proud of them.”
There was more than a hint of irony that a clutch of All Blacks stars had to call in a favour to get tickets for a sold-out Warriors home game in June.
New Zealanders’ skyrocketing interest in the NRL premiership as a whole – not just the Warriors’ fortunes – has partially been a product of indifference for rugby union’s staid on-field product and uninspiring competitions.
Not since the Winfield Cup boom of the early-1990s – when former Kiwis coach Graham Lowe was in charge of Manly Sea Eagles and the Queensland State of Origin team, and a torrent of All Blacks defected from the then-amateur code to the professional 13-a-side game – has union’s status as the kingpin of New Zealand sports been subjected to such an ambush.
Combined with endless rule tinkering that has severely impacted union as a spectacle, Super Rugby’s predictability and lack of competitiveness (the last time a team other than the Crusaders lifted the trophy was 2016) has become kryptonite for crowd turnouts. It even prompted World Cup-winning former All Blacks coach Sir Steve Hansen to declare the NRL was a better product earlier this year.
“It’s the best game to play and watch,” George boasts.
“Our competition – putting the Warriors aside for a moment – there’s still 11 teams vying for eight spots in the finals, a reflection of how tight the competition is. Throw the Warriors in there inspiring a nation, we’ve got kids following their heroes, and we’re a tremendous commercial brand.
“Everywhere you go the Warriors’ name is up in bright lights. Everyone’s tuning in to watch and that’s exciting, it inspires kids to go and play league, inspires kids that aren’t playing league to chance their arm and come and play for the Warriors and the Kiwis.”
Meanwhile, continually dwindling interest in the domestic National Provincial Championship was compounded last week by under-fire NZR chief Mark Robinson (not to be confused with his Warriors owner namesake) admitting the current NPC model is “not fit for purpose”.
Formerly rusted-on union fans are dedicating a bigger chunk of their sports-viewing time to the NRL. The upcoming Rugby World Cup is about all that’s saving the malaise from reaching epidemic proportions – but the ensuing few years loom as problematic for NZR…particularly if the All Blacks fail to bring home the silverware and the Warriors continue their ascent to NRL powerhouse territory.
There’s a cordial relationship between the rugby codes compared to a generation ago, but George makes no bones about the Warriors’ – and, by proxy, rugby league in New Zealand’s – intentions of ramming home their current advantage.
“Union have had their time in the sandpit for a long time on their own and I can assure you we’re coming, because we’re investing heavily in pathways and development.
“With that, it means you’re breaking in at a school level – and there’s a lot of kids that want to play rugby league. Kids talk to each other and if they get the chance to play for the Warriors, they’ll bring their mates along.
“We’re coming to cut in and get as much talent as we can playing league.”
While the Warriors get the same sized piece of the broadcasting revenue pie as the other 16 clubs, George is confident the NRL recognises the value the club provides due to the Sky New Zealand component of its television rights income.
“I think the NRL have always understood that, but in my view and what I’m hearing from headquarters now is they’re really seeing the giant being awoken.
“I don’t think anyone’s experienced what we’re seeing now for a long, long time and the NRL is starting to take note of our impact, and particularly after the last few years what a great job everyone’s done in reconnecting with the country and getting rugby league back up and running again.”
The Warriors’ momentum looks set to expediate the historic staging of a State of Origin match in Auckland. And while the club is determined to plead its case to host an impending finals match at Mt Smart (the NRL owns the rights to finals series gate takings and force teams to move from suburban home grounds to bigger arenas from week two of the playoffs onwards), the near certainty that a Warriors post-season game would see the ‘House Full’ sign put up at Eden Park, the 47,000-capacity home of rugby union, is a symbolic statement in itself.
PATHWAYS TO SUCCESS
As well as competing with rugby union for elite talent, the Warriors have 16 other NRL clubs sniffing around their backyard. Around one-third of players in the competition were born in New Zealand – and over the past decade, the Warriors have struggled to keep the best young players in the country.
Of the Kiwis’ 56 new Test reps since 2012, just eight made their debut from the Warriors. Of those eight, four were ‘one-Test wonders’ and only one played for New Zealand for more than one season while at the club.
The Warriors’ COVID odyssey hamstrung their ability to revamp their pathways and junior development. But the return of 2014-16 head coach Andrew McFadden as general manager recruitment, development and pathways late last year is another vital ingredient in the revitalisation recipe.
“We haven’t been able to develop over the past three years, so our pathways just stalled because of a situation out of anyone’s control,” George confirms.
“To reignite that system and invest more into it is a great thing for sport in New Zealand, a great thing for rugby league in New Zealand and Australia. Get more kids playing the sport and there will be more opportunities.
“We can’t keep them all – we get that – but what we do know is if we have the right pathways, which we do have now, we will get the best kids in New Zealand staying at home and playing for the Warriors, not going offshore.
“It’s overseen by ‘Cappy’ (McFadden) and they’re doing an absolutely outstanding job.”
This season the Warriors have fielded teams in the NSWRL-run SG Ball (under-19s) and NSW Cup (reserve grade) competitions. In 2024, the club will add teams to the Harold Matthews Cup (under-17) and Jersey Flegg Cup (under-21), while it will apply for reinstatement to the NRLW premiership for 2025 (the Warriors women’s team featured in the first three NRLW seasons before withdrawing due to COVID disruptions). Their unprecedented presence throughout the grades in Australia shapes as a foundation block for long-term juggernaut status.
In conjunction with Auckland Rugby League, Autex Industries assumed ownership of the Warriors in 2018. Autex and its chief executive Mark Robinson bought out ARL’s share the following year.
The commitment of Robinson and Vodafone (now One New Zealand) – the club’s primary sponsor since 1999 – to the Warriors through the financial and emotional strain of three COVID-stricken seasons essentially rescued the organisation.
“Their unquestionable support was the be-all and end-all of the future of this club,” George stresses.
“Firstly, One New Zealand have stuck so solid and have been so loyal through our challenges – and don’t forget they would have been having their own as well with the pandemic.
“It goes without question, ‘Robbo’ and his contribution and solidarity to the club, it’s future and the people within it, has helped it get through to where we are now.
“Without that, we wouldn’t be here – there’s no two ways about that, I don’t care what anyone says. We were worn out, ripped apart and struggling because of so many variables that were out of our control. We’re just blessed to have got through it with their support and it’s fantastic to see Autex and ‘Robbo’ and his family being repaid with what’s happening now.
“What was confirmed to me was your business is all about people. We saw our people become extremely good leaders, our organisation stuck together and continued to work through the tsunami we were swimming against.”
Autex’s association with rugby league goes back to 1980, when Robinson’s father, David (who was made an NZRL life member in 2012), instigated a groundbreaking sponsorship of the Kiwis national team.
Sustainability over profitability – essentially, what is best for the game in New Zealand – is the intergenerational ethos under Robinson’s ownership, according to his CEO.
“Making money in rugby league as a footy club is a bonus,” George says.
“It’s about reinvesting in the business to grow and strengthen what underpins the ultimate and sustainable success of winning premierships. That’s Mark’s philosophy, reinvesting in the business.
“He ultimately wants to make New Zealand proud of the club. To do that, he’s had to scale it right back and really start again from when he took over in 2018 before being hit with COVID.
“We’ve reset this year with a blank canvas, and this is where we’re at. He’s not into taking every dollar he can out of the place – he’s more about making a dollar and investing two back into it. It’s a privilege to see an owner taking on the responsibility of a club and brand like this to try and make every Kiwi proud of it.”
While fans are laser-focused on the possibility of a grand final breakthrough over the next couple of months, George knows from experience – such as the false dawn of the Warriors’ last finals appearance in 2018 – that the club may only be a losing streak or a poor follow-up campaign away from public favour fading away.
But this feels different. The pieces – and more specifically the people – are in place to facilitate lasting prosperity.
“Winning is a massive driving factor. But people enjoy experiences and a good time – it doesn’t matter where you are, if you feel safe and you’re having fun, and you marry that up with your love for sport or whatever it be, and you’re winning, what more do you want?
“It’s got so many boxes it ticks, from family events, to mates, to being emotionally attached to your favourite player or your heroes. Commercially it answers so many questions for sponsors and partners; the whole model is about the experience.
“And that’s why we hope to keep driving huge attendances over the next number of years – let ‘Webby’ and the boys do their thing, and our job’s to do our thing off the field and just get the best experience for everyone to keep coming back.
“Get the right people in the right job – that’s what we’ve done with gameday. A change of personnel has really amplified that. Webby has amplified that with footy, and Cappy with the pathways stuff. They’re all awesome people, they’re all committed and passionate about the club and the now. But also the future.
“There’s just no ego here, it’s truly an awesome place to work. You’re seeing what good people can do and that’s a reflection of where we’re at on the ladder. It’s a real privilege to work alongside them.”
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
Highlighting the Warriors’ commercial performance, these key metrics illustrate the strides the club has made in 2023:
- Over 220,000 fans have attended a Warriors home game in 2023.
- Over 152,000 attended first seven games at Go Media Stadium Mt Smart, average of 21,729 – The Warriors highest average since 1995
- A further 32,000 across Warriors out-of-Auckland games in Napier and Wellington, plus 38,000 for Magic Round game versus Panthers
- 2023 has seen the Warriors’ highest game-day revenues for merchandise in club history
- Sellout across corporate hospitality areas for final three home games; over 360 businesses will experience Warriors’ hospitality at Mt Smart with 45 businesses on the waitlist for 2024 packages
- Grown to over one million social followers, including 34,000 growth in July alone – fastest growing social audience across NRL for July.
- Over 28 million impressions across social media channels in July
Article by Will Evans