Rugby Football Union uses IBM analytics to engage fans

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) saw web traffic spike by nearly a third during this year's RBS Six Nations tournament, as match viewers flocked to use its IBM analytics-based TryTracker system.


The Rugby Football Union (RFU) saw web traffic spike by nearly a third during this year's RBS Six Nations tournament, as match viewers flocked to use its IBM analytics-based TryTracker system.

The TryTracker is the product of a partnership with IBM to deliver real-time insight during rugby games, and forms part of a strategy to improve fans' experience through improved use of digital technology.  

According to the RFU's head of digital, Nick Shaw, the TryTracker was developed as result of a change in the RFU's mindset to focus more on the possibilities offered by digital platforms to educate, inform and engage rugby fans, as well as "de-mystifying" the sport to attract new fans.

"What we are trying to do is take that raw data and tell a story. The data becomes information and is educational," he said at IBM Business Connect at Twickenham on Tuesday.

He added: "In the past digtial was always seen as an add-on for the RFU. Now it is core and central in everyone's mind."

TryTracker data-crunching

The system, similar to the SlamTracker used at Wimbledon, provides graphical representations of the ebb and flow of games based on match data and historical information supplied by sports analytics firm Opta. Like the SlamTracker, the RFU system is based on IBM SPSS Statistics analytics software and DB2 databases, which crunches data delivered in XML format by Opta.  

The aim of the TryTracker development was to put the system in place on its website event 'hub' ahead of the Six Nations international tournament, which kicked off in February, and was successfully launched in early 2013.

The TryTracker provides a range of in-game information to viewers, including real-time graphical indicators features such as 'Momentum', 'Key Influencers', and 'Keys to the Game' predictions.  

The 'Momentum' feature provides a visualisation of a team’s dominance based on match events, which are represented in the TryTracker with a latency of around 20 seconds, while the 'Key Influencers' shows which individual players are having the most substantial effect on the game.

Meanwhile the 'Keys to the Game' feature, which is released to fans prior to the game, indicates three achievements that will increase the likelihood of victory - such as number of scrums won or successful kicks.  This information is based on historic Opta data on England games, dating back around 10 years, and has "95 percent" accuracy, according to Shaw.

Spike in website traffic

Despite having to integrate information on a large number of players to support the in-match analytics, Shaw said that the development period was considerably quicker than the Wimbledon version, which took around a year to put in place.  

"We had to do it in three months, which was quite chaotic," he said, explaining that tracking 23 players in a rugby match required a lot more data processing than just two in a game of tennis.

Since going live with TryTracker, the system has had some success in engaging new and old fans, driving more traffic to the website.

According to the RFU's figures, during the Six Nations tournament there was a 27 percent increase in the number of unique visitors, which was attributed to the launch of the analytics system, with visits rising to 1.6 million, compared to 1.2 million the previous year.

"We saw record levels of traffic to the website during RBS 6Nations 2013, and we launched it in a really quite soft manner," said Shaw.

Going forward, the digital team at RFU, which was set up three years ago, looks to develop the analytics platform further with the more editorialising of data, more social network engagement and the addition of new streams of data. For example this might mean including weather data to add more nuances to the predictive analytics, while GPS data is also likely being incorporated, with tags on all England players' shirts.

Heartbeat monitors are also being considered, Shaw said.

The TryTracker will also benefit from an upcoming overhaul of the website, and the development of iOS and Android apps for the analytics system, both of which will be led by IBM.

"Recommended For You"

Accenture to analyse 2m rows of 6 Nations rugby data per game Rugby Football Union installs Microsoft CRM to improve fan and player experience