Leveling the Playing Field for Women in Professional Sports

Leo Burnett Australia’s “Bundy Mixer” campaign for Bundaberg Rum led with players’ statistics to transform fans’ behavior and propel gender equality in the National Rugby League (NRL).

Bundaberg Rum and Leo Burnett Australia partnered with the National Rugby League (NRL) to create the world’s first official mixed gender fantasy league. Fans built teams based on sport’s statistics alone – not gender. The goal: use the The Bundy Mixer as a Trojan Horse to generate awareness of the National Rugby Women’s League (NRWL) and spearhead long-term cultural change by championing gender equality in professional sports.

We connected with Andy Fergusson, National Executive Creative Director, Marijke Spain, Associate Creative Director, and Abbie Dubin-Rhodin, Senior Strategy Director, out of Leo Burnett’s Sydney office to talk about the campaign’s distinct approach, desired impact, and how they delivered a culturally relevant female empowerment campaign that underscored the gender bias in professional sports, without relying on cliched or possibly patronizing language that many other campaigns in the “female empowerment” space have relied on.

This campaign leveraged impactful visual and video content. How did you approach the creative assets and mix of media to bring this campaign to life and impact consumer engagement?

We knew Bundy’s fun tone was an integral piece in creating entertaining and watchable content for an NRL-loving audience; but to appeal to those who weren’t actively interested in the NRLW, we created a “Trojan Horse” campaign that impacted fan behavior, indirectly, without the more cliched empowerment language that we knew might not “land” in this environment.

From a visual perspective, we wanted to stand out from the styles typically associated with the NRL brand – gritty graphics and ‘tough’ photography of players on the field. It was important that we be “proudly Bundy” by leveraging Bundy’s yellow brand color to create a branded digital world to bring our players into.

This campaign lived primarily in digital and screen environments, where we focused on connecting closely with fans. We created a feedback loop with ‘weekly performance updates’ from the NRL, informing people how their team performed in the leagues they were in and reminding them to participate the following week. With this approach, we were able to generate fast fame for The Bundy Mixer that kept engagement high throughout the 7-week fantasy league campaign.

This was the world’s first-ever official mixed fantasy league that was sponsored by Bundy Rum. How did Bundy Rum’s relationship with the NRL influence the campaign’s success? 

While this was Bundy’s first year sponsoring the NRLW, the ongoing relationship between our client and the NRL gave us a great foundation of trust. Very quickly after Leo Burnett developed the idea and vetted it with Bundy, we were able to share it with the NRL for player and league input, developmental refinement, and support in navigating all the operational elements required to take this campaign from an idea to reality.

The NRL built the Bundy Mixer within their official fantasy platform, adding further credibility to the idea and creating ease of discovery and usage. Without that long-standing relationship, we would have faced more headwinds in getting the campaign to create such a powerful impact for year 1.

It was important that the Bundy Mixer campaign focus on athlete’s stats as opposed to their gender. What impact did this have on fan’s behaviors by making the campaign a numbers-centric play?

There is so much cultural bias that’s baked into how people talk and think about women’s sports, which has manifested into an inherent fan belief that “men’s sport just offers more” from an entertainment, competition, and sponsorship perspective. We challenged fans and sport’s leaders to stop and question if that belief is actually true, or just something they’ve been led to believe. And we knew from social listening, conversations with fans, and responses to other work from around the world, that we couldn’t get people to interrogate such an accepted ‘truth’ through the usual avenues of emotional storytelling.

We realized that player stats brought fans together and gave them something objective to organize their views toward players and teams. This insight was a crucial component when fans were designing their fantasy leagues—but like most professional sport codes, the NRL’s fantasy league only included its male players.

We didn’t want to create an NRLW fantasy league that continued to separate women players into a secondary space. And to disrupt deeply held beliefs about women’s sports we needed to be bold in the process of developing this campaign. Ultimately, we found out that no one had ever done something like this before—and we were shocked, because it’s 2022. So, this was our opportunity to drive transformational cultural and behavioral change throughout Australia’s NRL in a novel way.

We designed the new mixed gender league so participants couldn’t build their team without 50% female players. This guaranteed NRL fans would get to know some of the NRWL women and player stats. And lest anyone believe we were forcing people to choose players from the “lesser” side of the league and making their points totals worse, there wasn’t a single week where you could put together the highest scoring combo of players without having women on your team.

From viewership to sponsorship, how to do think this campaign has altered Australia’s sports ecosystem and the prevailing gender bias in favor of male athletes?

We’re still working in a sporting ecosystem where only 8% of sponsorship and 7% of broadcast coverage is directed toward women’s sports. Year 1 of the Bundy Mixer was a great first step, but what will inform its legacy will be how we build from this foundation.

There’s significant movement in women’s sports within the professional codes. For example, the NRL announced at the beginning of the 2022 season that they’d be accelerating the expansion of the NRLW from six to ten teams next year, but the ecosystem around the codes isn’t moving with the same level of systemic urgency.

That’s where we hope Bundy as a brand, and Bundy Mixer as a product, can work to accelerate change to overcome culturally ingrained gender biases. Whether it’s bringing more corporate partners into the conversation, establishing dedicated segments within sporting programs for equal time on women’s leagues and players, or helping emerging teams build out their membership bases, there’s significant space for us to keep the sports ecosystem focused on elevating women’s sports as a priority moving into the future.

What values did this campaign bring to professional athleticism in the NRL and the NRWL? 

Our key learnings and successes from the Bundy Mixer were:

-Mainstream sport conversations are incomplete without the women: A lot of work that came before Bundy Mixer has made a great case for women’s sports, but mostly in a way that kept it separate to the more male-centric mainstream sport ecosystem. With the Bundy Mixer, we were able to go outside the echo chamber to reach the skeptics—of which there were many.

-Behavior change is easier elicited through a nudge, rather than a shove: You can’t force people to love women’s sports. But by tapping into known fan behaviors who live by the stats, we were able to make a compelling, yet subtle, case for why their beliefs about women’s sports is outdated and incorrect—without needing to call anyone out directly.

Ultimately, the Bundy Mixer made the fan experience as fantastic as possible while underscoring our fundamental belief that this experience can’t reach its full potential when fans are only experiencing one half of a league. And although we can’t “fix” systemic gender bias in professional sports with one novel campaign, we’ve already seen a tremendous shift in how NRLW players are being represented to promote gender equity in the professional sports arena.