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NRL Rugby player kicking a ball

NRL kicks goals digitising decades of content, drills data to enhance fans’ experience

Deep in its archives the National Rugby League had precious films showing games from the 1920s. The admittedly grainy images span back 100 years, not long after the game of rugby league was first played in Australia in 1908.

The original film was fragile and not easily accessible – but to Rugby League and it’s fans it was precious treasure. Now, as part of a massive digitisation effort, the 1920s film, in addition to games and or moments from every decade since, are preserved and available for online streaming and  content generation, streamed to NRL enthusiasts and the public.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians – men, women and children – play, watch and love the game. It’s for them that the National Rugby League (NRL) wants to streamline access to its rich trove of content.

In the past, distribution arrangements meant that NRL, Club and State apps and websites were managed by a rights partner. Today the NRL manages it’s digital products and produces the content for all platforms which has prompted a more hands-on approach to innovation and the opportunity for direct digital engagement with rugby league fans.

Domenic Romeo is the NRL’s Head of Technology and has led a program of work to modernise the NRL’s digital infrastructure, to ensure it is scalable and can cope with the highly seasonal demand from fans. In tandem he has also led a data program that has dramatically enriched the NRL’s understanding of its fan base, and hence its ability to provide rich and targeted experiences.

Footballers from the 1970s
A game match from the 1970s. Today most of NRL’s content has been digitised and archived. (Source: NRL Image Archive)

For the NRL Digital program, Romeo identified Microsoft Azure and platform services as a cost effective, secure and highly responsive cloud solution. This opened the door to the broader Microsoft ecosystem which is playing an important role in the NRL’s digital transformation.

The program of work was well underway when the pandemic struck, but the social distancing requirements only served to amplify the importance of the migration from physical media storage – where people had to manually load tapes – to a digitised and virtual cloud storage platform which could be managed remotely.

The work began in 2017 with the intent to digitise the legacy archive containing tens of thousands of physical tapes. Today most of the NRL’s premium content has been digitised and transferred.

Romeo explains; “The oldest piece of content we have is back from the 1920s, which we’ve been able to digitise and preserve. We’ve got lots of footage from all decades since then and then coming to the present day where we continue to build that archive from every game and event that happens.”

The NRL now digitally archives all new footage as it is produced. Once in the cloud, access can be provided to the NRL’s media partners, to clubs and states, sponsors, venues hosting matches, and for advertising campaigns or other promotional purposes.

It’s also available to fans.

Romeo explains that the NRL has developed a processing engine that sits in Azure and streams the high resolution digital content to the NRL’s app and website.

Fans can now choose to watch games back from the ‘50s and ‘60s that they’ve never seen before – or just as easily replay the previous night’s match.

Image of football fans in crowd
NRL’s digital archives are accessible for fans to replay matches. (Source: NRL Image Archive)

Access to the back catalogue of games was particularly valued during the pandemic and while the 2020 NRL season was suspended due to COVID-19.

“During COVID the NRL was unable to create new content during our season suspension, so we actually virtualised some seasons and just ran games out of our archive to mimic a virtual season,” says Romeo. Fans were delighted and until the 2020 season began the biggest source of NRL traffic was from fans rewatching old games. Romeo adds:

Fortunately, we already had digitised all this content. So we had it at our fingertips. It was up in cloud storage, it was accessible.

Because of COVID-19 related workplace restrictions, the production of the live streams from the NRL archive was largely handled by employees working from home. Because the content was on the cloud that proved relatively straightforward says Romeo.

While the NRL now has a huge digital library of content stored in Azure, it was not able to save all the analogue content – some of the old films and reels had deteriorated too far to be saved and digitised. However all current and future content is now being preserved digitally and secured in the cloud – including match photographs which are also stored in Azure and available to media partners and affiliates..

“All the live streams that we run outside of the main matches is all run off Azure Media Services. As of a year ago, we moved all the streaming services to Azure Media Service as well and any video that is played on our platforms is originating from Azure Media Services,” Romeo explains.

Empty football stadium
NRL’s digital transformation allowed its employees working from home to produce live streams from the NRL archives (Source: NRL Image Archive)

Data delights

NRL has also set about modernising its data platform and integrating its own content with data from all touch points with the sport.

Using Azure Data Factory the NRL has created a data platform populated with ticketing data, attendance data from turnstiles, online accounts as well as data collected at grassroots club level about members and playing juniors. It provides the NRL with a much clearer view of fans and consumers.

Romeo explains that Azure Databricks has been leveraged to build the data asset, with machine learning algorithms intelligently grouping information that allows the NRL to identify fans and consumers across all the different touchpoints.

“That’s been a huge value add to us as we are on our journey to understand more about our consumers,” says Romeo.

He stresses the importance of the partnership forged between NRL and Microsoft as the project has developed, and acknowledges how important it was to the NRL to be able to leverage platform as a service cloud services rather than infrastructure as a service, reducing the management burden on Romeo and his team.

“That was a big reason that we came over to Azure in the first place, so that we wouldn’t have to manage our infrastructure,” he says.

With the data platform now in place, the NRL is also keen to explore how it might in the future be able to further leverage AI and machine learning services like Azure cognitive services , to add more timeline metadata for example, or to use voice recognition and speech recognition to improve accessibility of our published content.

And thanks to its content digitisation, allow fans to travel back to landmark games from 100 years ago.

Women football team winning the finals
The strong partnership between NRL and Microsoft sees the possibility to further leverage AI and machine learning to improve accessibility of published content. (Source: NRL Image Archive)