How Can Technology Improve Fan Engagement At The Rugby World Cup?

How are the RFU using digital to improve fan engagement at the World Cup?


 When international sporting federations consider who is to host their flagship tournaments, at the forefront of their minds is often whether the sport’s profile will be raised in the region as a result. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has been particularly vocal about his desire to see this happen with soccer, which has led to the Jules Rimet trophy being handed out in a number of countries not traditionally associated with the sport under his reign, such as South Africa and Japan. This same policy will see the World Cup hosted by Qatar in 2020, where it has the potential to convert some of its 2.169 million population and surrounding areas.

Rugby union, while still a huge sport, is not on the same level as soccer, and there is still massive room for growth - even in those countries where the game is long established. This year’s tournament kicks off in England on Friday. Although England is the home of rugby, and one of the traditional powerhouses of the game, it is still largely seen as a rich man’s game. There is much evidence that suggests English rugby is still ignoring vast pools of potential, with 61% of players in the English Premiership having attended independent schools, despite the privately educated accounting for just 7% of the population.

The Rugby World Cup should be a huge opportunity to increase its profile in the country, and across the world. Mobile telecoms group O2, sponsor of the England rugby union team, estimates that as many as 20 million fans will be drawn to the World Cup. With supporters in the UK having an average of 4.6 connected devices per household, content across a range of platforms is essential for driving fan engagement, and keeping people interested in the sport after the tournament is over.

Rugby is often seen as a leader in the adoption of technology in comparison with other sports, particularly soccer. Sophie Goldschmidt, Chief Commercial Officer at the RFU explained in 2013 that: ‘Our aim is to bring more people into the sport at all levels – from casual touch-rugby games to professional coaching in schools and clubs. We knew that driving fan engagement was the key to realizing this vision.’ The RFU was one of the first to incorporate refereeing technology and video replays, and teams have been quick to use wearable devices, which go on players’ shoulders during the game to produce detailed performance data. England Rugby also invested a mammoth £78m in ‘digitalizing’ Fortress Twickenham in 2011 to make it the most ‘digitally connected’ stadium in the whole of Europe in time for the World Cup. The RFU has put a heavy focus on driving traffic to its website during a game, using stats from wearables and stadium sensors to provide in-the-moment insights to spectators at home or at the stadium – telling the story of a match in real time. This helped drive the number of visitors to its pages up 27% during the 2013 RBS 6 Nations Championship, compared to 2012's.

The RFU has also worked in collaboration with Big Data technology specialist IBM to develop IBM TryTracker, a powerful Big Data analytics application which can access vast archives of historical match data to predict how a game is developing, putting the current action in context. In a series of in-depth workshops, IBM Global Business Services and RFU’s in-house digital team analyzed data from 300 international rugby matches to establish what statistical measures truly reflected a good team performance. IBM and RFU then used this information to design and configure three analytics dashboards using IBM SPSS® software. The RFU’s website,, then displays three dashboards during live matches - ‘momentum’, ‘keys to the game’ and ‘player influence’ – each delivering a different kind of real-time insight to fans.

As important as the content itself, is understanding how fans are engaging with content on and around match day, what devices they are on and how often. Mobile is particularly important, and the official Rugby World Cup 2015 app, delivered by Omnigon, is set to help exploit this market. The App was downloaded 3.5 million times during the 2011 tournament, and the RFU is aiming for even more this time around. The App will be ‘geographically responsive’, and provide a way to connect fans in and around the stadiums, fanzones, and at home.

Twenty seven percent of Fans say that they will increase their online sharing activity during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, while 34% say they’ll be consuming a lot more rugby content. For the RFU, adopting all the technology possible to provide this content to fans is essential for growing the game and realizing the potential of the tournament.




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