With the northern hemisphere season having ended and the summer and Lions tours kicking off, rugby is front and centre of sports fans' minds. As we tune in or turn up to watch the stars of the game perform across Argentina, Australia, Japan and, of course, New Zealand, we will see stadia that represent all points of the game’s history. These range from the truly old-school to grounds, to stadiums, such as the ANZ in Sydney, which are genuine hubs of the modern elite game.
Realistically though, how much more tech-forward could the homes of rugby really be? As an outdoor sport, played in under 90 minutes, the scope for the US styling — so prevalent in basketball and ice hockey — is much reduced.
Additionally, with the advent of live pause, second and third screens, great commentary as well as the expense of attending the game live, how many fans now prefer to watch from home or in the pub? Over the past decade, the sports sector has focused so much on engaging remote viewers that fans in the ground have been somewhat overlooked. Realistically it is no longer good enough to rely on the quality of competition; fans have evolved and need something more than trys, tackles, short loo queues and quickly served beer (although solving this in some grounds would be a quantum leap forward).
So how can technology significantly enhance the live experience? There was no better place to start than speaking with some elite players; Jamie Roberts, Danny Care, Tim Visser and James Horwill, who are all experienced club, country and Lions veterans and brought a very particular degree of insight to the process.
The overriding consideration of the players was the role of the crowd. In short, nothing inspires them more than the noise as they exit the tunnel. Favoured grounds were the ones where fans are close as their energy doesn’t just make them part of the match, the players pick up on it and it inspires them.
What also arose from this part of our conversation was how much the players liked city centre grounds, with the Principality Stadium in Wales emerging as a favourite. With new building technology — and some well-applied vision — architects should be squeezing down the stadium footprint and creating steeper viewing to create a much more intimate feel in towns and cities worldwide.
Most fans are now aware of the role GPS data plays in training and game-strategy but around the sector there have been discussions about who owns this. Is it the intellectual property of the player and kept private? Or can it be leveraged commercially? Given this I was surprised by the degree to which the players were happy to share data with fans, in effect telling them how effective or hard working any player had been at any time. The role of this in dictating stadium design is interesting as it could be as basic as uploading it creatively onto the big screen, alternatively it could be a core theatrical element in making substitutions.
Whilst artificial surfaces abound in modern sport, there is scope for these to become even more game changing. For example, by adding fibre optics to the playing surface, we could conceivably create initiatives such as ghost replays of previous play. These would be exclusive to fans in the ground, adding another theatrical element to the match ticket as well as giving crucial assistance to officials.
From a business point of view, there is a strong argument that hospitality is too vanilla — as well as roof top or cabana-style seating or viewing; there is also far more scope to create suites around the players’ tunnels or dressing room views.
In terms of seating, let’s be really innovative. Recent development in materials means that glass roofs or moving, theme-park style seating gantries are perfectly feasible, meaning fans can buy ‘birds eye’ seating, enabling them to follow the gain line.
Conversely standing areas may sound like a retro-step but it would be a move forward for the modern game. Putting these in the ‘red zones’, between the 22 and touch lines would increase crowd density, therefore noise and energy levels.
Of all our discussions, what struck me most was the degree to which the players’ passion for rugby is apparent off the pitch as well as on it; these men love their sport and are very grateful to the fans who support them. Whilst they relished anything that had the potential to help them play better, their main concern was giving crowds the best possible experience.
Players do their bit when they run out for club or country, architects and grounds owners can do ours by embracing technology and converting that into innovative and inspiring sports theatre.