There was a moment, with the NRL playing hardball, when it looked as though New Zealand's most long-lived naming rights sponsorship was being forced to end.
It was 2020 and the NRL, because of their association with Australian telco Telstra, and the fact that all games were being played in Australia where Vodafone Australia was a competitor to Telstra, insisted the Vodafone Warriors end 24 years of sponsorship by Vodafone New Zealand– recognised as one of the longest naming rights deals in sport, not just in Aotearoa but anywhere.
"You know, when we sit down to renew the sponsorship with Vodafone, it's not really like a normal negotiation," says Glenn Critchley, General Manager, Commercial for the Vodafone Warriors. "It's such a strong relationship, it's like catching up with old friends; there's no awkward moments or painful issues.
"We sit round the table and say, 'what about this and what about that' – and then we shake hands, and all is right with the world. That's been the case for 24 years; people have come and gone but that relationship has been constant."
Renegotiation will be required again at the end of this NRL season as the term of the current agreement is due to end; Critchley says the club intends to renew and, in March, the NRL gave permission for the Warriors to continue their partnership with Vodafone New Zealand.
It ended a period of tension after the NRL, and Telstra bowed to public pressure in 2020. The Warriors were in the midst of their forced stay in Australia – earning great sympathy and backing from Australia and fans on this side of the ditch. The NRL and Telstra relented – but said the Warriors had to find a new naming sponsor at the end of the 2022 season.
Now that has been waived as well and Critchley says the way is clear for one of sport's most enduring partnerships to cement their bonds.
The value, he says, has not just been in the seven-figures helping the Warriors' team efforts, it's also been in the unwavering support Vodafone has shown the club, dealing with the potentially crippling issue of not playing at home, thousands of kilometres away from their fans.
They had to remain relevant – emotionally and commercially – to fans, sponsors, their owners and major partners. They knew their continued existence was tied up with a lot more than on-field performance.
"We had to find ways of sustaining fan engagement and delivering greater value in ways we'd never done before – and quickly," says Critchley.
The answer was digital technology transformation and the Vodafone partnership – their expertise in working free-range and ability to help others adapt quickly to a new world – had never been so relevant…and needed.
When Covid-19 occurred, the team was based in Australia, with no direct contact with fans. But digital ways of connection were available – and that development spurred the Warriors and Vodafone to investigate new ways of doing things and to deliver value.
"The whole sporting landscape has changed [because of Covid-19]," he says. "Previously, we had what I would call a stadium experience. It was a bit like going to the movies or going to a show. You were there and things were happening in front of you, but it was a mostly one-way conversation."
Instead, the club, with the help of Vodafone, bridged the trans-Tasman gap by instituting player Teams calls with small groups of fans – about five or six at a time.
It's been, says Critchley, a much richer experience for fans: "There's still a bit of hesitation at the beginning but then they realise their Vodafone Warriors heroes are just people working through the same challenges of a new and uncertain Covid world. It creates a common interest, conversation comes easily – and it's a much richer engagement experience for the fans – and the players. It's quality time."
Nor is this just an anecdotal achievement. The enhanced and increased use of the Vodafone Warriors' social channels saw engagement rise by 20 per cent from 2019 to 2020. Last year, it was up by 40 per cent over 2020 – and Critchley says data from this year will show another increase, probably in the region of 15 per cent.
That's happened even during the year when the Warriors are experiencing a less than stellar season and staff shake-ups. Vodafone also helped the Warriors pivot smoothly when Australia became their new home, splitting their operation into two countries, connected with a digital umbilical cord.
"We have had to change to make sure we are delivering value to our sponsors, our partners and our owners," says Critchley, "and again the answer has been digital."
Joe Goddard, Vodafone's Experience and Commercial Director, who is a long-time fan of the Warriors and rugby league, says: "The Warriors, regardless of where they sit in the table, are an important part of the fabric of Aotearoa and have been for decades. They carry with them the weight of New Zealand in every game they play, across a season that spans more than six months. Add to that the challenge of being away from friends and whanau for literally years, that's a lot of pressure and regardless of how they do, they deserve our support.
"Beyond that, they stand for something that I think is deeply New Zealand – tenacity, resilience, getting back up every time you fall down, flair and innovation, biculturalism, those are all values we should be instilling in future generations, and that's something the Warriors stand for."
Goddard says the value of the Warriors goes far beyond on-field performance: "It's about showing our rangatahi that success is possible and that opportunities are out there if you work hard and grab them with both hands. Getting to invest in and support local talent to do great things, that's important to us as a company.
"We've been sponsors of the Vodafone Warriors for longer than some of the players have been alive and we want to continue to support this great team."