TikTok’s Harley O’Dell on the Women’s Six Nations: “Partners find success when they engage culturally, beyond sport”

TikTok’s Harley O’Dell on the Women’s Six Nations: “Partners find success when they engage culturally, beyond sport”

TikTok bring scale to anything they touch - that’s clear in the stratospheric numbers on their view counts. Through their continuing journey with Women’s Rugby, TikTok spur on a snowballing sense of progress in one of the fastest growing women’s sports.

Harley O’Dell is the Sports Marketing Lead EU for TikTok. We spoke by Tobacco Docks, at a launch event for the 2023 TikTok Women’s Six Nations. The first thing Harley was keen to stress was that “partners find success when they engage culturally, beyond sport." It follows, too, that partners embedded in culture find success when they connect with sport.

Diversity and Inclusion

This is the platform where “all fans play” and looking at the range of content sprouting on the platform, it’s difficult to argue against the unique engagement that TikTok fosters with sports fans. For all its enormity, Harley believes that this is a “grassroots platform for creators” – the platform doesn’t geoblock, nor does it, in relation to the Six Nations, favour one competing nation over another.

In support of this competition, which will see all 15 matches televised on the BBC for the first time, TikTok are placing diversity and inclusion at the centre of their campaign. It coincides with a special time in the sport: “The Women’s Six Nations has its own tournament window,” meaning that it takes place after, not concurrently with, the Men’s Six Nations. The hope, we agree, is that it is no longer seen as an appendage on the men’s game. TikTok’s partnership with the Women’s Six Nations is exceptionally considered here: how better to fuel a women’s game that now stands on its own than to offer players a chance to express their individuality online?

#SixNationsRugby Hub

To help develop a “soundbox of creativity,” the platform will take fans behind-the-scenes with its #SixNationsRugby Hub - the home of rugby content in-app that will spotlight ‘the best match highlights, training ground footage, fan reactions, creator content and more.’ By utilising their scale and content wingspan, this Hub offers entertainment to fans at any stage of rugby fandom. The resulting product will “help people move on a path” through rugby-related entertainment. What’s more, TikTok are partnering with fellow Six Nations sponsors, Sage Data & Analytics, to create informative content within this Hub. The proximal collaboration is a perfect example of how partnerships can innovatively mutate.

It’s just one way in which the company are looking to build on the success of the partnership in 2022. There, the French team caught fire on TikTok with a trend of showing their meal plans, offering a crystalline window into historically unseen parts of the game. Crucially, the content remained in the hands of players themselves. Harley and I spoke about how templated press conferences and interviews often fail to engage fans, much less inspire them: “authenticity is always number one with us.” With players able to genuinely connect, the game becomes both enlivened and more approachable.

Protection from negativity online

TikTok is “natively positive." Women’s rugby, likewise, is suffused with deep optimism and an eye on progress. Through this historic partnership, the game is riding TikTok’s wave of creativity while providing a vessel in which TikTok can promote its positive potentials. At a time when social media companies are scrutinised for their action or inaction to contend with the negative aspects of fan engagement, TikTok are “proactively protecting” athletes and fans with a Swipe Out Hate campaign. Each of the six Unions competing in the women’s and men’s Championships has fronted the project. Swipe Out Hate sees the platform collaborate with sports figures across the board, including Scottish referee Holly Davidson, with an expressed mission to eradicate hateful speech online. To elevate Swipe Out Hate even further, Union captains will front the campaign alongside TikTok creators for the first time, explaining what respect and sportsmanship means to them and sharing how people can report hateful content. The campaign will also appear on billboards around the stadiums, in print, and online. When I bring up Twitter and the cauldron of negativity often nourished by the company, Harley explains that “direct messages can only be sent by followers, which, in terms of proactively protecting players, is so important for us and for the athletes."

How has it worked?

In our conversation, we keep returning to ‘diversity and inclusion’ and the success of TikTok’s approach has palpably transferred to the raw data. Last year's Championships broke attendance records for women's matches with a 69% increase in stadium support, while ‘unprecedented TV audiences watched in 137 countries thanks to significantly ramped up broadcast coverage.’ In that same timeframe, there were more than 100 million video views on the @womenssixnations TikTok channel and 110,000 new followers.

This is a deeply impressive partnership, in which the two parties reciprocally elevate each other each step of the way.