From Gavin Miller to Cliff Lyons and Steve Roach, an array of the game’s greats will take time to reflect today on their role in the famous Tina Turner advertising campaigns that took The Greatest Game Of All into another stratosphere in the late 80s and early 90s.
The brainchild of former NSWRL general manager John Quayle, the 1989 ‘What You Get Is What You See’ campaign proved to be an absolute juggernaut, and was followed by the equally iconic ‘Simply The Best’ ad the following year.
Turner, who passed away today at age 83, may not have presented as a likely face for rugby league. But as Quayle started to ramp up the game’s marketing presence, she proved to be …. simply the best.
His plan was to purchase the rights to Tina’s 1985 hit ‘What You Get Is What You See’, matching it with fast-moving action sequences in a stunning commercial, also featuring Tina with a bunch of the league’s most presentable players in a variety of settings.
“It’s a great story – the story of John Quayle’s assistant who knew Roger Davies, the Australian manager who made the connection who got her involved in forming the campaign, to her getting involved with the sport to of course performing at the grand final a few years later which was also terrific,” NRL CEO Andrew Abdo told Ben Fordham on 2GB on Thursday morning.
“It was really a golden era for rugby league and part of that is through Tina Turner. So she will always be remembered by fans and this weekend we aim to celebrate that by playing her music, showing those ad campaigns from over 30 years ago.
“And we also had a short video made in 2020 to celebrate the 30th anniversary, which tells the untold story of that campaign.
“She played a unique roll in probably the most iconic sports marketing campaign in our history, it was inspirational and it got people thinking about rugby league differently.”
After the success of the ‘What You Get Is What You See’ campaign, Turner arrived on Australian shores in early 1990 to film the advertisement that would propel rugby league to unprecedented levels of popularity during the early 90s.
Turner’s power ballad ‘The Best’ proved to be everything the NSWRL hoped for – and more – capturing the imagination of traditional fans while contributing to attract women by adding a sense of glamour to a historically blue-collar game.
The campaign cost the NSWRL $2 million but Quayle was always confident it would pay dividends. “It is impossible to gauge the value to the league, but already we have received national exposure and the ad hasn’t even gone to air yet,” Quayle told Rugby League Week in February, 1990. “She is a true superstar.”
In 1993, an even bigger coup for the game when Turner performed live at the grand final at the Sydney Football Stadium.
Tina had the crowd on their feet and singing along to The Best ahead of the showdown for the supremacy between the Broncos and Dragons.
Having lapped up Tina’s two anthems on the legendary TV ads the fans were given a real treat to see her perform in person on a glorious Sydney afternoon.
And at full-time she joined the victorious Broncos players for photographs as they celebrated back-to-back premierships.
Thanks to Quayle’s vision and Tina’s powerful rock ballads, rugby league’s popularity had gone to a whole new level and her unique place in the game’s history was assured.
Speaking to Ray Hadley on 2GB on Thursday, Quayle paid tribute to Turner and the way she had embraced the concept.
“The thing that made that campaign so successful was Tina, what a wonderful person she was. She just made everyone on the set feel relaxed every day,” said Quayle.
“I had Cliffy Lyons and Gavin Miller in London for one day of shooting [in 1989] and when Tina came in to that cold dressing room, Cliffy’s eyes lit up, she gave them a hug and she was such a warm person.
“Tina’s Australian manager Roger Davies had said if we were prepared to come to London we’d get one day of filming and they’d have a look at it and go from there.
“The only person I told was [ARL chairman] Ken Arthurson and he said, ‘OK mate, if you think you can make it work then give it a shot’.
“Ken and I got on a plane and I took the jumpers and footballs and VHS tapes to show Tina.
“My other job was to get a good footballer and Andrew Ettingshausen was the best looking footballer at the tie and he happened to be playing in London so I rang him and he said yes.
“I had a great relationship with Gavin Miller so I rang him and asked him to coordinate it all over there and make sure ET got to London. I didn’t tell him what it was, just to do a commercial, it was all very secretive.
“So I get to London and there’s a message from Gavin and he says ‘We’ve got a problem. Andrew’s game was snowed out and they won’t let him come on the Wednesday’. But Gav said it wasn’t a problem because he and Cliffy Lyons would step in.
“The story leaked back home and Ken was getting a fair bit of backlash and there was a lot of controversy and he wanted me to pull the ad three days before it was due to go to air.
“Luckily Ken stayed strong, everyone loved the ad, and a few days later Roger Davies rang us and said he had a song on Tina’s next album that hadn’t been released yet that would be great for the game and we bought the rights for ‘The Best’ for the next seven years.
“Ken as chairman was courageous to allow us to make change as we were doing at that time and we were fortunate to have been part of a wonderful era.”
A wonderful era, indeed, and one rugby league fans will remember fondly this weekend as the game pays tribute to the rock & roll grandmother who changed the face of the game forever.