NRL’s Digital Gamble Could Undercut Stadium Attendance

While this year’s first State of Origin game in Melbourne scored record crowds, it cannot hide the fear of declining stadium attendance.

Here’s hoping NRL’s new app wins the fans.

In December 2017, the NRL announced the launch of their very own digital network, allowing seamless integration of stats, scores, and live-streaming of everything NRL-related in one location. Six months later, on June 3, the Australian Financial Review claimed the NRL is celebrating the success of its digital network.

“The NRL believes it is already winning with what has been one of its more controversial investments,” the article reads.

“Origin matches are almost always among the top 10 most watched shows on Australian TV each year but have tended to overshadow NRL home-and-away matches. The league hopes a better digital
presence can help somewhat overcome the issue at least.”

However, four months earlier ABC News reported that the NRL “is agonising over the latest sharp decline in attendances.”

“In Sydney the rectangular codes are still carving up $1.5 billion in State Government funding dedicated to new stadiums,” the article reads. “But if NRL crowds continue to dwindle at the current rate they could soon be accommodated in old phone boxes.”

Crowd shares empty seats in background. Image: Matushchak Anton

The article also reported that it wasn’t just NRL being affected, but AFL, Super Rugby, and A-League as well.

This is perhaps why the NRL is forking out around $120 million over the next five years for their new digital project, which has only been possible following new terms set with Telstra over their $1 billion broadcast deal signed three years ago.

NRL Chief Executive, Todd Greenberg, called it one of the most significant projects the league had ever undertaken.

“This is an exciting moment for Rugby League and is part of our ‘fan-first’ approach,” Mr Greenberg said.

“Within a single, high-speed and personalised network, fans can access the latest club and player news, receive offers on the best-priced tickets and merchandise for matches and events, and live-stream NRL games via the NRL Official App.”

It was also praised by NRL Chief Digital and Data Officer Rebekah Horne.

“We’ve seen many sports both nationally and internationally develop their own product and service offerings as fans continue to consume, comment and share content as it happens,” Ms Horne said.

“Ultimately, it comes down to fans being able to access and enjoy their rugby league experience wherever they are; whether that’s at home, on the go, or at a game.”

Sydney Roosters versus New Zealand Warriors. Image: Max Blain

But, while providing other seamless ways for sports fanatics to enjoy the game – including live-streaming – could the shift be too much or not enough for maintaining and growing stadium attendance?

According to a report released by Deloitte in 2018, professional sports in the US are increasingly “competing with the couch” along with pubs and clubs and smartphone apps, which can also be said for much of the developed world.

“With more options and busier schedules, fans who have traditionally purchased tickets to live events are expecting more flexibility than ever before if they’re going to attend games,” the report reads.

The report found a growing trend in the US around ‘season-ticket holders’, with sporting bodies evolving their ticket packages and offerings to “engage a broader continuum of fans.”

“In an attempt to cater to a more diverse set of fans, organisations like the New York Jets have rolled out subscription-based mobile passes that allow fans to attend a predetermined number of games for a flat fee,” the report reads.

“By offering the ability to choose from any game and any ticket quantity at discounted prices, fans are given the flexibility that more traditional season-ticket packages don’t often provide.”

On the other side of the problem are the digitally-savvy millennials who are expecting better accessibility through live-streaming, live stats, and constant replays, forcing sporting organisations to rethink their advertising revenue.

“Soon to be gone are the days of mass marketing home games on billboards and TV commercials,” the Deloitte report reads. “Instead, as individuals increasingly watch sporting events over digital platforms… the data trail left behind will be used to target fans with personalized offers to buy tickets or merchandise.”

Stadium awaiting game. Image: Krivosheev Vitaly

If we factor in the growing competition – from the couch at home to the nearby pub, or anywhere in the world with internet thanks to live-streaming – stadiums are already having a hard time competing. It must be pointed out, however, that going digital is necessary to bringing better accessibility to patrons. But this digitalisation must be done right, lest the patrons will stand up and leave.

Tech Republic published an article four years ago outlining the need for digitalisation, while reiterating how important it is to get it right.

“Imagine walking into a stadium and your smartphone immediately pings you that a $30 premium seat upgrade is available for purchase on your mobile device,” the article reads. “As soon as you settle in to enjoy that awesome view of the game, you use your smartphone to order a pulled pork sandwich and imported beer delivered right to your seat.

“Then, when your favorite player scores a touchdown, you use the team’s app to watch an instant replay at multiple angles and a stadium-exclusive video feed of the players on the sideline.”

This is a reality in some stadiums throughout the world and is considered a great way to compete with the cheap and convenient alternative of watching the game at home, but you have to get it right.

In response, an NRL spokesperson said: “The NRL acknowledges that its game, like other major sporting codes across Australia and the world, competes with fans’ desires to watch their sporting teams, live at stadiums, via broadcast streams, or both.

“The game would continue to monitor and support opportunities for continued growth across Stadia infrastructure and broadcast streams, ensuring that fans had access to teams and sporting moments, no matter the occasion or location.”

Crowd cheer