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How The NRL’s Digital Strategy Has Evolved Since COVID-19

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n an interview with Ministry of Sport, NRL chief digital officer, Alex Alderson, discussed the growth of the NRL’s Digital Network and how the role of digital has evolved since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking on the growth of the NRL’s Digital Network from the start of COVID-19, Alderson said the league has seen as many as one million extra fans each week on the NRL Network.

“COVID has accelerated some trends we were already seeing in the way our fans like to engage with rugby league,” Alderson told Ministry of Sport.

“Prior to COVID, we saw about 3.5 million people a week on the NRL Network.

“Since we have returned to play, that number is regularly around 4.5 million.

“We haven’t created one million new fans in this period, we’ve found a way to engage more of our existing fans, more often.

“The collaboration with our clubs and players during that period where all sport was really threatened was as high as it’s ever been.

“We were able to achieve some really great things within the sport last year.

“The collaboration between the sport and its major partners was probably at its highest as well, everyone came together in the crisis and tackled some quite difficult problems including how the sport recommenced as soon as we were able to.

“In that sense, there have been positives within a really challenging situation,” he said.

Despite the increased restrictions on players due to COVID-safe protocols, Alderson said the digital teams’ access to players for content was easier.

“We found it was a lot easier to spend time with players during COVID, because of the enormous sacrifice they made to a standard of quarantine that us in the general public weren’t required to,” Alderson said.

“Players were spending a lot of time at home in between trainings and games last year so they could safely travel across state borders and continue to play the competition.

“That meant that the players had more time available to catch up with us and share their stories.

“In that sense, it was a really great part of our experience last year and we found, not always, but in some cases, we continue to use video interviews as a forum to make it as quick and seamless as possible to engage with players and hear more about their stories,” he said.

Talking about the value of digital as a wider part of the NRL’s strategy and as a way to connect fans to the sport, Alderson said supporting the live product is a major aspect of the league’s digital strategy.

“The thing with all sport is the value to the fan begins with the live match, and that will always be true,” Alderson told Ministry of Sport.

“When we think about how we create value for the sport, we think about ways we can promote, enhance or enrich peoples’ live viewing experiences.

“In some cases, the job for us to do is to ensure people know where and how to watch it.

“A good example of another job we do is around statistics and the way we are able, as a sport, to collect those in real-time and serve them up not only on the NRL Network, but to partners broadcasting live.

“It really helps contextualise player performance, and I see further innovation coming in the way we will help our partners to tell that story of the live game through data.

“We will continue to work with our partners and experts in the field to convey the supreme athletic feats of our players.

“A big part of the growth and what will drive growth in engagement, is how we play a supporting role in relation to the live product.

“Through the course of the week, our opportunity as a sport is to identify ways we can tell stories people can broadly relate to, we’re seeing great examples of that in world sport at the moment in the form of documentary series.

“They are helping people who might be fringe fans or not fans at all, really get under the lid of a sport, understand the sacrifice, and understand the hardship, and the highs of achievement.

“There’s absolutely a piece there and a job to do for NRL fans and the broader viewing public.

“It’s an opportunity we’re exploring, the key thing to us is that it’s critically important to get it right and there’s a number of aspects going into getting something like that right.

“I expect it to be a big focus for us in the coming years,” he said, indicating the NRL is exploring the creation of a documentary series similar to that of Formula One (F1) with the Drive to Survive series, the AFL with the Making their Mark series, and many other sports around the world.