At YinzCam, we have been working with Telstra and the National Rugby League (NRL) over the past 6 months to develop launch the NRL 2014 app as well as the mobile apps of all of the NRL clubs. The NRL 2014 app was indeed both our first league-wide app, as well as our first major overseas app. On the feature side, it includes several other firsts—fans can subscribe to watch games using a weekly or annual digital subscription, and fans can also enjoy full match replays, in-match scoring highlights, exclusive live press conferences, post-match analyses, and 400+ archived matches on demand. This is available to fans 24×7, anytime, anywhere, within Australia and New Zealand.
I had the opportunity to watch an NRL game inside a stadium for the first time this month. It was the Wests Tigers vs. Manly Sea Eagles match at the Brookvale Oval. It reinforced for me why replays, particularly close-up replays of the action, are truly critical to the in-venue experience. As a fan, you’re always anxious to keep up, and to keep your focus on the football—literally—because that is where the action is centered. A try (analogous to a touchdown in American football) can often occur in a matter of seconds, with players passing the ball to each other quickly, in order to avoid being tackled, from one end of the field to the other. While stadiums both in the U.S. and Australia do tend to show replays of the action on the stadium videoboard, there is something special about cradling your phone in your hands, calling up a replay personally, whenever you want, savoring it slowly and repeatedly, and marveling at the players’ athleticism and the beauty of the play itself. For several times during the match, I found myself reaching for my phone to see the action again, and again, ….. and again.
Apart from my love of the sport of rugby league itself, which was re-awakened by attending a game live, there were some unique aspects of the NRL that were memorable, particularly in being around other fans and watching a match at a stadium.
1. Non-stop, pure action. The game of rugby league is fast-paced, and the players are allowed to do simply that: play, uninterrupted, for 80 minutes of non-stop action. There were no commercial timeouts, no breaks in the action, no unnecessary stoppage. The only breaks were injury-related or penalty-related, or a short break for the celebration at the end of a score. In fact, there were no water breaks or player-substitution breaks, either. Instead, the teams’ personal trainers ran out onto the field, in specially-marked clothing, in the midst of all of the action, to keep the players hydrated on a regular basis! There is something to be said for non-stop action that keeps you riveted.
2. Emotional connection with the stadium. In my mind, accessibility is about giving fans have a chance to create deep, memorable, emotional connections with the venue and the stadium. Given that, any and all NRL fans are provided with the incredible opportunity to get onto the field, 15 minutes after the end of the game, for every game. For a fan, nothing tops the ability to go on and experience the “battlefield” minutes after the battle has taken place, not just to take pictures, but to have a chance to kick a field goal, toss a football around, stand in the precise spot where a record was broken, anything. Talk about creating memories! Indeed, this is particularly important for the NRL, where several teams might call a stadium home.
3. Emotional connection with the team. Similar to season-ticket holder programs, NRL fans pay to become members of the team that they are affiliated with, and there are unique membership perks apart from the usual team swag, e.g., the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs’ Dog Box experience, where members are selected via social media, to watch the game from a high-profile glass enclosure (the “Dog Box”) close to the action. At the Manly Sea Eagles game that I attended, I found it remarkable that the players returned to the field, a few minutes after they had won the match and after they had initially retired to the locker rooms. The whole purpose of this ritual was for the players to walk around the perimeter of the field, slowly, taking their time to thank fans, take pictures with them, shake hands, and interact with fans personally. It was significant that this post-game ritual involved not one player, not two, but the entire team showing their gratitude to their fans in a classy way.
4. Creative ways to incorporate advertisers. The field serves as a digital canvas for advertisers. The field itself has very little physical markings, other than the hash-marks, lines, and possibly, a league/club logo painted on the turf. However, when the game footage is broadcast to the videoboard/TV, or sent to the mobile app, the video undergoes a digital transformation to overlay sponsor logos virtually onto the turf, so that key sponsors have significant impression counts during the entire course of a match. This virtual digitally-rendered sponsorship overlay is advantageous to the fan and to the sponsor. First, the fan experiences the game’s action in an uninterrupted manner, without the need for the sport to impose timeouts for commercials and sponsorship messages. Second, because every single replay and piece of footage is guaranteed to have the overlay embedded in it, the sponsor is linked, in the fans’ minds, with the team, the sport, and with every outstanding play.
5. Grassroots engagement. The NRL’s engagement with youth ranges from competition to branding. For instance, in parallel with the main Telstra Premiership competition for the professional clubs, the NRL additionally runs an under-20s National Youth Competition (called the Holden Cup) that consists of its 16 clubs fielding squads of players that are 17-19 years old in an intensely-fought, high-profile series of matches played immediately prior to the primary NRL matches, and culminating in a premiership final match played prior to the NRL Grand Final (the equivalent of the Super Bowl). On the branding side, the NRL recently unveiled a terrific set of jerseys with Marvel superhero themes. Five NRL teams this season will be sporting jerseys themed with Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk and Wolverine. My 7-year old son is already clamoring for these.
At the end of the day, sports is about making memories, creating emotional connections, and developing a life-long sense of attachment to the game and the team. While it’s the theater of a sport that brings a fan in, it’s the accessibility of the sport that keeps a fan involved for life. The NRL does an outstanding job of engaging with fans at a young age, and in making the sport, the stadium, the team, and the players accessible to fans, and in keeping that passion alive around the clock.
In fact, the Manly Sea Eagles match that I attended had a VIP fan in the audience, a personage no less than Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. I learned that he was a lifelong Manly Sea Eagles fan, and for the entire duration of the game, he sat in the stands, cheering his team on, wearing his team scarf, absorbed in the action unfolding in front of him, and doing pretty much everything that you would expect of any other fan. For the space of 80 minutes in a stadium on a Friday night, he was—and the beauty of it was that he was simply allowed to be—just another passionate rugby-league fan.