Up the Wahs

Despite not securing the NRL title, there’s no denying the beloved New Zealand rugby league team, One NZ Warriors, had a sensational season, possibly signalling the beginning of an even greater era than ever before.

This year, for the first time in three years, the Warriors returned to New Zealand full-time after playing in Australia during the pandemic. 

Sports marketing in general is heavily fuelled by the results of the team, with a good season always translating into a good marketing strategy. But with their return to home soil, the team’s entire marketing strategy shifted. 

Glenn Harris, General Manager of Marketing and Business Development for the One NZ Warriors, says that prior to the pandemic, fan engagement and attendance were heavily results-driven. 

“Our whole strategic premise for this season that just finished was to take the variability of football and results out of the brand framework, so our plan was to create something where the fans could be the star of the show,” says Glenn. 

“The players would always be the stars of the game, but we wanted it, for the time that fans were involved with our brand, whether it be here, home, whether it be near, far, whatever, we wanted the fans to be the stars of the show.”

With this new strategy, Glenn says the Warriors ensured that whether they won or lost, their marketing made it seem like it didn’t matter; “it was about being here or watching it happen, equally”. 

This meant the Warriors were pushing the experience rather than the nitty gritty of the sport. 

This year, they focused on introducing players, what they do outside of work and creating a brand personality which meant a heavy lean into channels such as TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube.  

“People started to form an attachment to our brand. It was a constant companion in their lives rather than the thing they looked forward to only on game day,” adds Glenn. 

What really pushed the strategy over the edge was the infamous “Up the Wahs”.  No matter where you looked,
the phrase “Up the Wahs” took over and became its own movement. One NZ customers’ phones even had “Up the Wahs” written in the corner where it usually said One NZ and Kiwi personalities were keen supporters of the movement, even with other sporting legends like NBA Coach Steve Kerr saying it on live television. 

Though the origin of the phrase is highly-contested, Glenn reveals that while the words “Up the Wahs” did not come from within the club, the catchphrase came at a perfect time as it was focused on the fan community. 

“[We] don’t know where it came from, but it turned up one day and then just stuck,” he adds. 

“We didn’t fuel it, it just happened organically, but nor did we quell it or try and correct it. It was something the fans owned. It’s not our place to say that’s right or wrong, but it has become a phenomenon.”

It is no surprise that the virality of the catchphrase led to thousands of Kiwis who had never seen the sport before at the stadium, watching a game of NRL. For many this was their first introduction to the sport.

Undoubtedly, the fan attachment grew thanks to the catchphrase which quickly became almost a mantra. 

Throughout the year, Glenn says the marketing team focused on enhancing the fan experience which included creating a crowd chant the fans could own. 

“What we learned about this entertainment business that we’re in, is that it’s about an exchange of value. We give the fans something, they give us something back and everyone’s happy. So little things like ‘Up the Wahs’ and the crowd chant, everyone had skin in the game in terms of the success of not only the brand but also the club this year,” he says. 

The Warriors presence on social media was heightened, with TikTok’s averaging views of over 100k at their prime, and brought a new generation of fans into the stadium. 

The Warriors were able to sell out the Go Media Mt Smart Stadium, their home ground, six times in the season, with their semi-final game selling more than 22,000 tickets in “a matter of minutes”. 

With the 2023 season coming to an end in September, the Warriors’ play was considered a successful and intense rollercoaster ride from both a sporting and marketing perspective, despite not taking out the win.

Now the question remains, how will the Warriors continue this momentum heading into the 2024 season which starts in the middle of the year, after a six month break?

For any sports team, a break is always important whether the season was successful or not and for the Warriors, Glenn says the break is much needed to let people process what had happened, reflect and take a moment for “the hot air to leave the room”. 

For the upcoming season, Glenn says that the 2023 marketing strategy will be their baseline and the team will grow and extend upon that. “You’ll see more of everything again, more of the ‘why’ that we talked about, we’ll spend a lot more time introducing people to the cast of this crazy old show that we do,” he says. 

The 2024 marketing strategy will dive more into fan insights, looking into what it means to be a fan, why some fans sat in the same seat for 30 years with a season membership, and what does it mean to support the club?

“This thing we do is more than just winning the competition, it’s about inspiring a nation. We are only one team representing a country, it’s about creating something that people can be proud of and be part of,” he adds.

This article was first published in our December/January 2023/2024 issue.

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About Bernadette Basagre

Bernadette is a content writer across SCG Business titles, The Register and Idealog. To get in touch with her, email [email protected].

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