Computerworld

Sports clubs scoring goals with technology

Australian and New Zealand rugby league and rugby union clubs are turning to technology to give them a competitive edge against rival teams and forms of entertainment, Hamish Barwick writes
The Wests Tigers are planning to develop stadium-only mobile content for fans.

The Wests Tigers are planning to develop stadium-only mobile content for fans.

In an age where many forms of entertainment clamour for people’s attention, it’s no surprise that even popular sports codes such as rugby league have to work hard to get fans along to the game or watching at home.

While league and union used to have an almost 100 per cent male fan base, sides have had to reposition themselves as family entertainment with half time events and giveaways in order to get mum, dad and the kids through the turnstiles.

On the flip side, clubs also face the challenge of keeping television free to air and pay per view broadcast partners happy with buoyant viewer numbers every week. So it should be little surprise that sports clubs and the venues and stadia which support individual teams are turning to technology to boost membership, get fans through the turnstiles, and improve player performance.

Membership

As any venue manager will tell you, a club rises or falls on the strength of its membership. So it's no surprise that sports clubs are turning to social networking sites as an excellent way to engage in conversation with existing fans while serving as a recruiting ground for new members.

For example, while National Rugby League (NRL) side Wests Tigers has a massive following on both Facebook (70,000 followers) and Twitter (10,000 followers), the club has taken fan interaction a step further by setting up its own dedicated social networking site, Wests Tigers Rugby League Supporters.

Hosted on the YuuZoo platform, the site is designed as an area for fans to chat purely on Tigers-related topics. The forum has attracted 5,500 users since inception five months ago.

Wests Tigers sales and marketing manager, Brett Clarke, says that while Facebook is a fantastic resource --because it reaches a large audience-- the social media services design created a challenge for the club in keeping fans informed.

“If we post a message on Facebook, within 10 minutes the message has disappeared because everyone’s timeline has filled up with their friend’s posts,” he says.

“It’s not as engaging on Facebook as it is having a dedicated social network. Our players go on the Wests Tigers network once a week to do a live chat with the fans which helps them get closer to the players.”

The other critical factor for the club in setting up its own social networking hub is that it retains ownership of the data and content.

According to Clarke, the possibility that companies may some day have to pay Facebook for data ownership meant that there was added incentive to go with its own social network in order to maintain control over its data and its destiny.

Super 15 rugby union side, the Waratahs, has also found social networking an ideal way to engage with fans.

By having a Facebook page the New South Wales club has amassed 24,000 likes and is currently trying to get live match data to fans via Facebook in a timely fashion.

The club also has a Twitter profile which now has 7000 followers. According to Waratahs rugby commercial general manager, Kym Aust-Howlett, this has enabled fans to engage in open dialogue with the Waratahs and the club is collecting this feedback to improve its services to members.

For example, this feedback led to the deployment of a mobile optimised website platform which allows fans to access game and transport information directly from the Super 15 rugby team’s website.

The platform, which was built by Blink Mobile Interactive, came about following three years of research into fan behaviour and website information needs.

“This enabled our website content to be delivered to mobile devices such as smartphones and personal digital assistants [PDAs],” says Aust-Howlett. “Supporters took to the technology quickly and within two weeks of launching, the site was being frequently used with overall usage surging by up to 250 per cent on game day.”

She adds that the side starting focusing on IT and engaging with club members 18 months ago.

“We got one of our partners, IBM, to rebuild our website and engaged an IT contractor to look at our mobile network to look at how we could ensure that fans got the data and statistics to keep engaged with the team,” she said.

Over the page, increasing attendance.

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Bums on seats

Sometimes attracting fans can be as simple as allowing them to pay off season tickets in instalments via the internet which is something the New Zealand Warriors NRL side implemented in December 2011.

Using a billing system called Debitsuccess, club members can pay for their season tickets or membership in instalments over six months. Previously they were only able to do this in a maximum of three instalments. Integration between the NRL Web portal and Debitsuccess’ paperless direct debit technology means that new members can sign up online, and then nominate the intervals at which they will pay their fees.

NZ Warriors finance and operations manager, Dave Curran, says club membership has increased to 1500 as a result of the payment system --and publicity generated by the team reaching the NRL Grand Final for the second time-- while the average number of tickets purchased per customer has risen from 2.21 tickets to 3.32 tickets.

“We know the best way to grow our support base is to get the fans to see their team play live,” he says. “In efficiently facilitating the ticket buying process, Debitsuccess has basically made it easier for fans to attend local games and connect with the team.”

Curran adds that the system is proving to be far more effective than the in-house system it had before and saved the club hours of work and administration costs.

Aside from using technology to make it easier for fans to buy tickets, the side utilises the NRL CRM database to send information such as game day and season ticket offerings out to members via email.

When the team is named on the Tuesday afternoon before a match, members get this information first as well.

While the NZ Warriors have attracted more fans with ticket payment plans, Curran laments that its home stadium in Auckland, Mount Smart Stadium, doesn’t have the necessary scanners to allow for Near Field Communication (NFC) capable phones to be used as virtual tickets.

“Our scanners aren’t up to date with the latest scanning technology on phones which we hope the stadium will update soon,” he says.

“However, our ticket partner, Ticketet, has recently introduced a scheme where people can print their tickets off at home and scan them at the ground.”

In addition, the stadium has recently installed IP cameras so security can constantly monitor during games what patrons are doing. If fans are drunk or have smuggled alcohol in this means they can be spotted and ejected from the ground quicker, says Curran.

“This means a much better environment for our fans, many of whom are families with young children.” Curran adds that the club doesn’t have an IT staff member, choosing to employ an IT consultant instead. Not only has the club saved overheads costs but Curran reports that using a consultant means it has an IT resource “on tap” when it needs help.

“Our priority is to stay abreast of all technology changes as we don’t want the team or staff members to fall behind,” he says. “We have the latest iPads to keep the staff working at maximum potential.”

Over the page, stadium technology and player performance.

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Stadium Tech

Thanks to the recent rollout of faster mobile networks and 4G-compatible devices, Wests Tigers is now in the planning stages of a new project to entice more fans to attend the games by offering mobile content which would be restricted to a 3G or 4G network within the stadium.

“We’re working behind the scenes to develop platforms which would allow fans to access different camera angles or behind the scenes footage in the changing rooms,” Clarke says. “With a 4G network and its download speeds these videos will become quite accessible.”

Clarke says the fan content will be rolled out in time for the NRL season in 2013, possibly with a partner such as NRL sponsor, Telstra, which has recently begun offering a 4G service.

“The challenge is that we have to be careful because the broadcast is our biggest source of revenue but also the biggest deterrent for people coming to games,” he says.

According to Clarke, Wests Tigers matches, on average, attract 1.2 million viewers every weekend.

“The revenue we do generate needs to be poured in to make the stadium experience better,” he says.

For example, the club is introducing a food and alcohol billing system for smartphones so people can pay for purchases while they are still enjoying the game and collect the food and drink at half time.

Clarke says this should lead to lessened wait times and contribute to an improved atmosphere at the stadium.

Because the team has three stadiums within Sydney it plays at, each one offers different technology capabilities. At the Allianz stadium, there are a number of IP cameras monitoring crowds for any unruly behaviour while turnstiles at both the Sydney Football Stadium (SFS) and Campbelltown are now fully integrated with ticket operator, Ticketet.

“People can download tickets to their mobile phone and use their phone as a ticket rather than having to search for a paper one,” he says. “We’re moving more and more towards a paperless ticketing system.”

When it comes to game time at the stadium, the Waratahs work closely with ticketing partner, Ticketet, to ensure crowd queues are minimised through the use of electronic ticketing online.

“The electronic ticketing is linked through the mobile website so fans can buy tickets for the next game,” she says.

In addition, the Waratah's home stadium will be renovated over the next two years to install IP cameras for security and crowd control purposes.

Player Performance

Wests Tigers players are also getting on board with technology. During training sessions, each player is fitted out with a global positioning system (GPS) device which monitors speed, heart rate and velocity.

“That plays a pivotal role in managing work flows of players,” Wests Tigers’ Clarke says. “The old days of running around the oval doing 40 laps are gone because each individual is now monitored by our sports scientists.”

Like the Wests Tigers, Warriors team members are fitted with portable GPS units during training sessions. These units track movements on the field and how many miles the players have run.

In addition, there are no excuses for team members to miss or be late for a training session since a training schedule application was developed for the iPhones provided to the Warriors. The app includes what time the session is being held, the location and what exercises each player will be doing.

Players are also been watched via video which pick up every angle during training so coaching staff can go back and analyse it later. Every second of test matches is also examined to pick up where players might be going wrong with their performance.

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Technology isn’t regulated to entertaining fans either. In 2012, the Waratahs started working with a company called Motion Centre which uses tablets to record training sessions. These videos enable the coaching staff to review player performance while they are in the field.

“We also have a statistician who wants to get more live data and transfer that immediately to coaching staff,” Warratah’s Aust-Howlett says.

“On game days he will be in the coaches’ box and feeding that back to the sideline so we can make decisions on the spot about changing the strategy for the game.”

“From a commercial perspective, it’s making sure we get information such as player injuries, how they are recovering and where people are,” she says.

Since entertainment is a “massive part” of the club’s focus it is working with partners on technology that will support that. While the Waratahs haven’t revealed any plans for stadium exclusive content yet, it will be working with sponsor, Volvo, on a mobile application for the iOS and Android operating systems within the next six months.

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

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