Going upstairs risks putting rugby fans to bed

Going upstairs risks putting rugby fans to bed

As the dust settles on this year’s RBS Six Nations, it’s a chance to reflect on what’s been another entertaining championship.

In many respects the tournament will be remembered for England’s Gram Slam winning efforts, as they look to rebuild after an embarrassing World Cup exit last October.

At Stripe we’re always keen to explore how brands are finding new and interesting ways to engage with their fans. And while I could discuss each nation’s marketing credentials in more detail, there is a major talking point in need of some serious airtime.

Going upstairs to consult the Television Match Official (TMO) is a current moot point in world rugby. If you’re not familiar with the in-game technology, TMO is a tool used to help match-day officials make ‘accurate and consistent decisions’ in key areas such as whether the ball crossed the line for a try.

While there’s no doubt about the need for this technology to exist, there is a growing perception amongst fans and pundits alike that referees are now relying too heavily on TMO to make decisions.

Rugby, like all professional sport, is a game of fine margins. The decision to award a try or not can mean the difference between success and failure.

However, there is a fear that referees’ liberal use of this technology risks spoiling the spectacle for fans.

This was evident in the first match of the Rugby World Cup between England and Fiji last year. After months of media hype, all eyes were on Twickenham – including tens of thousands of potential new rugby fans.

This was rugby’s moment to show the world why this thrilling high impact sport is so admired. Instead, the match was a less than compelling stop-start affair, with the referee punch-drunk on TMO.

Twitter went bonkers. Fans new and old weighed in, criticising the referee and the way TMO was sobering the passion of the moment.

The relevant authorities responded to criticism saying only 28 per cent of stoppage time lost in the opening match was taken up by the TMO process.

While this figure might not sound like much, I’d argue that any amount of time wasted watching a big screen during a live event disrupts engagement, dampens spirits and draws attention away from the magic of the experience.

Concern over TMO was also evident in this year’s Six Nations, when England flanker, James Haskell, was sin binned against Ireland. Hyper slow motion replays adjudged Haskell to have illegally collided with an Irish player. In the days that followed, Haskell spoke out against TMO, arguing that gasps of the crowd had influenced the referee’s decision and that repeated replays make contact seem worse than in real time.

High profile sporting events are already a battleground for brands vying to grab our attention. No doubt savvy marketers are already plotting ways they can exploit moments of TMO boredom to win our love. In-game advertising and mobile targeting will continue to grow and evolve which will no doubt impact on the way fans interact and engage with rugby and other sports in the future. But as we continue to discover at Stripe, targeted content must still be relevant and resonate with fans to make the message stick.

Live sport is one of the most compelling human experiences we have available, putting us in touch with our most primal emotions. While in-game technology has its place in sport, I worry what we stand to lose.

Sport is an ever-growing commercial arena, where accurate decision-making is essential. But the longer we are sent upstairs to endure endless stoppages in play, the less likely the sport will attract fans from new markets and ensure existing tribes are kept entertained.

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