It wasn’t all that long ago that one of the premier venues in Dublin, Ireland – the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) venue, lost a very public battle with WiFi connectivity that was a key factor in Europe’s leading tech conference, the Web Summit, exiting for Portuguese shores. The RDS venue remains the home of the Leinster Rugby team, (arguably limited in their opportunity to relocate), a team which is rapidly recognising the growing value of connectivity to their fans.
Leinster Rugby itself is one of the premier Rugby traditions of Europe – regularly competing and besting their far more deep pocketed and well financed British and French competitors. Recent successes both in 2011 and 2012 European Cup Finals, and 2013 & 2014 Pro12 League victories indicate the Leinster Rugby pedigree and their ability and aptitude to succeed on the pitch. Off the pitch, while financial resources may not be as plentiful as with leading British or French teams, an emphasis on innovation keeps them competitive and technology is recognised as a key part of this.
Leinster Rugby has played a significant role in supporting sports tech startups in Ireland – one key example being their early adoption of STATSports technology, an Irish sports tech company that is now a world leading provider of GPS performance analysis equipment, allowing teams to analyse performance and reduce player injury. Worth noting as well, Leinster stalwart Jamie Heaslip has illustrated his investment knowledge with an early stage cash injection into Kitman Labs, a sports tech startup that has recently broken into the US.
Leinster Rugby’s pioneering use of the STATSports technology propelled it on its way towards both UK and global market adoption, illustrating Leinster’s commitment to both innovation and supporting Irish technology.
While this is very much reflected in their official Leinster Rugby mobile app, one senses that in a venue as steeped in tradition as the RDS, dating back to 1815 when it was originally purchased from the Duke of Leinster, the pace of change in mobile and stadium technology has extended beyond its hosting capabilities.
Our most recent review of the Olympique Lyonnais app highlighted its state of the art stadium setting which was just recently opened in January 2016. Naturally, it has been built with the opportunities relating to modern day fans, including mobile and connectivity, at its heart – while, in contrast, the RDS venue most famously provoked the ire of Paddy Cosgrave, Web Summit founder who suggested it (the RDS) was good for horse shows, not for bigger events!
Ultimately, this begs the question: How then could a fan experience app be expected to fare? Marcus Ó Buachalla, Media & Communications Manager of Leinster Rugby is clear in their emphasis on providing a good experience for the fans: “We realise that a lot of our supporters and our Season Ticket Holders are interacting with the App on a weekly basis (30,000+) but that shoots up on match day. So we want to create a one stop shop for supporters who wish to interact with Leinster Rugby, but also want to have a brilliant time at the game.”
It is a critical question – the majority of sports teams are housed in aging venues and often have limited resources to re-invest in the fan experience and connectivity, so Leinster Rugby presents an ideal case study for similar venues of what can be done.
Approaching the stadium on match day and opening the Leinster Rugby app, I’m greeted with the latest news and articles related to the Leinster team – useful to catch up on before entering the venue as the pre-match discussions generally rely on fact, as opposed to the post-match discussions when the Guinness has a decidedly advantageous influence!
From a usability perspective, there’s nothing confusing – it’s a simple design that is easy to maneuver. This is necessary as the app caters well to their core fan demographic that includes an older less technophile crowd spanning the younger student demographic.
Interestingly, the student demographic is a particular target for Leinster Rugby tapping into unsold inventory, allowing students to buy last minute match day tickets (Student Pass) through the official Leinster Rugby app, for as low as €10. A smart move to entice a younger generation!
Once in the app, clicking into the menu gives confirmation of today’s game and kick-off time at the top, which is a nice feature and this can be confirmed in the ‘Fixtures’ menu item as well.
One valuable addition would be a transport section, guiding fans towards the RDS, which has multiple entrances, so that a novice could easily locate the best route. Although once in the venue grounds, it is well signposted and stewards eager to assist abound, in terms of stadium experience an interactive stadium plan would be a quick win.
The opportunity to purchase tickets directly in the app is great and worked efficiently on the 4G on the way to the game, allowing fans to select their preferred budget and integrating directly into the Ticketmaster web service.
While the tickets aren’t stored within the app – that still remains the confines of the more advanced venue app platforms such as VenueNext at the San Francisco 49ers – pre-purchasing allows you to skip the lines for fans purchasing tickets and pick them up without any delay. This sets up the fan experience to be enjoyed rather than wasted queueing!
One of the real advantages of the RDS Arena is that once you’ve got your ticket and get into the venue itself, there’s still ample space for refreshments and merchandise sales, as well as a whole area dedicated to sponsor activations (though the River Rock bouncy castle failed in making me switch from my beverage of choice!). The environment is great and has the feel of a village festival, and prior to the game it wasn’t overcrowded – enabling easy access to the donuts.
It’s clear that Leinster Rugby is making a dedicated effort to the fan experience – even throwing in a band for good measure:
Naturally with all this excitement going on, I did what any self-respecting millennial would do and tried to share it with Facebook friends and Twitter followers. It’s at this stage that the limitations previously exposed at RDS stayed true to form, multiple attempts to select the WiFi and connect were fruitless.
Keep in mind that the area wasn’t overcrowded or full of Generation Z’ers committing bandwidth thuggery via excessive Snapchat shares, so this is definitely an area of improvement for the RDS.
While this gap in connectivity service is disappointing, it wasn’t necessarily surprising although it definitely does conflict with Leinster Rugby’s strong digital and social emphasis, which was clear to see with calls to action on show in the venue. The hashtag #WeAreMany was particularly prevalent, right outside the dressing room, and illustrated Leinster’s efforts to involve their fans to contribute to the fan story with their fan generated content.
But let’s return to refocus on the app: given the limited WiFi, how did that affect the app in actually enhancing the fan experience? Well, thankfully for this app review, the layout of the venue and the strategic placing of 4 boosters in each corner of the venue means that even at a capacity of 18,500 people, connecting to 4G was not a problem.
There are still some great features in the Leinster app to be examined, with Leinster Store allowing Merchandise purchases direct from the app. While this is a great feature, enhancing this so as to allow fans to have merchandise delivered to their seats would be a welcome addition.
Once ensconced in our seats and watching the match, we verified that the team information in the app was up to date. And thankfully, for an enraptured audience waiting on social, I was able to share my experience on Twitter using a 3G network (follow us on @crowdsight_)
Relying on a 3G or even 4G connection in the stands meant accessing video wasn’t consistently stable. The video functionality is somewhat limited in any case – linking to the official Youtube channel. The expectation as a sports fan, in accessing video within a fan experience app, is to view real-time highlights and ensure they don’t miss out on any game action!
This is something that Manchester City have cracked for Premier League games (which you’ll see in our upcoming review in the next couple of weeks). While there is value in having access to Youtube videos, it lacks the real-time element that fans crave.
However, the Leinster Rugby app returns to a pioneering standard in digital with the Upgrades functionality and this is truly a European first! We reported on it in our blog post on Irish innovation in Sports & Tech and indicated it was widely touted as the first European wide integration of seat upgrade technology.
As Marcus maintains: “Over the last months, the App has become more than just an information hub for our supporters. Now, thanks to Experience – our partners – our App is much more and supporters can get live seat upgrades at the game for a nominal fee, they can also get money can’t buy match day experiences or give-aways to reward them for their attendance (Surprise & Delight).”
In a venue such as RDS, with two main stands uncovered, according to Marcus, this is a very easy way to help their fans given the stadium layout: “It is very straight forward and all a few clicks away. Essentially for a nominal fee you are sent a unique code through the App and a steward verifies that code before showing you to your seat. So a great example is if you are in the North Stand and it unfortunately rains, our inventory will have a record of all the empty seats for that game that have been returned or not sold, and they can be purchased through the App. So three clicks later you are away from the rain and under the cover of the Grandstand!”
Given the calibre and budgets behind some of the team and event apps we’ve reviewed, Leinster Rugby are punching way above their weight in using their team app in this way – to deliver exceptional fan experience.
From a digital Sponsorship perspective there is huge potential. Currently there is no immersive Sponsorship element in the Leinster Rugby app – not even a basic Sponsorship logo. It’s an approach that is in sync with other team / event apps, with rights holders very keen to look at growing a user base initially before integrating any Sponsorship.
The value as Marcus explains is clear: “We have already had conversations with existing sponsors and we are exploring a number of different options. Ultimately it is 30,000 supporters who have gone out of their way to download and engage with Leinster Rugby. Sponsors value supporters like these.”
Without a doubt, there is an untapped opportunity here to drive greater sponsorship value, followed closely by new revenue streams, which Leinster Rugby are yet to exploit fully – “We recognise the opportunity,” says Marcus “ if you look at what the NFL teams do, look what Saracens do in England or Manchester City. We are only starting, I think, and there are significant possibilities out there.”
The challenge is in integrating Sponsorship that doesn’t rely on push mechanisms too overtly – such as push notifications and banner ads – while they can be used effectively, can also serve to annoy or alienate fans. New digital sponsorship technologies that engage fans more effectively are coming to the fore and providing a real opportunity to drive Sponsor value and create CRM benefits.
From reviewing the app and the feedback received from Leinster Rugby, it’s clear the immense focus that is placed on creating a great fan experience. Partnerships with Xtremepush, Experience and digital partners Samsung help drive the digital experience and the possibilities from the re-development of the RDS venue (and the connectivity enhancements that are expected) are hugely exciting.
There is a recognition of the longer term potential of the Leinster Rugby app in this respect, particularly in terms of driving ongoing CRM benefits and improving fan understanding. “This is hugely important,” according to Marcus. “Understanding our supporters is crucial for us in terms of how we develop in the next few seasons, in particular with a new RDS Arena only a few seasons away. The opportunity that a new stadium offers from a communications/digital point of view is hugely exciting but we need to have a better understanding of our core demographic, and advances like the Student Pass, or the Surprise & Delight, or indeed the Seat Upgrades all play a part.
Looking a little bit further into the future, that student that we give a ticket to for €10, is he or she next season’s Season Ticket Holder? Or that Season Ticket Holder that experiences a better match day experience because of his or her seat upgrade, do they then purchase a better category of ticket next season? It is all with a view to winning over new supporters and retaining those that we currently have.”
Working with the resources available and given the connectivity in a traditional venue, it’s impressive the advances that Leinster have made and their emphasis on using mobile to drive the business objectives of the team is significant. The industry shift towards mobile and, in particular, harnessing fan data via a mobile app, is seen most clearly across the Atlantic, where the greatest investment into innovative features can be seen, from in-venue delivery services to virtual reality.
Leinster Rugby are employing a successful approach of integrating the innovations that serve their audience most effectively. Having recognised the value that building an advanced fan CRM can have to their business, new mobile app features that can assist with this are now constantly under review, including in-app ticketing, F&B purchasing, real-time video replay and immersive digital sponsorship platforms.
As if to emphasise the new features that can be expected, Marcus sums up how crucial the mobile app has become: “We want to get to a point where the App is as much part of the match day experience as wearing your blue jersey down to the RDS. It’s a must have.”