1. Business
  2. The future of sport
March 13, 2020updated 16 Mar 2020 9:41am

IBM and RFU: Growing the game of rugby, off pitch and online

By Jonathan Moss

It’s an old rugby cliché, but, so often, much of the important work that goes towards winning a match can go unnoticed to the casual observer. Everyone remembers the winning try, but not necessarily the vital work at the breakdown that initially secured possession and set up the decisive move.

In many ways, the same can be said for data. Since the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and IBM renewed their partnership in 2018, they have embarked on an ambitious digital transformation project to overhaul their online and digital touchpoints for supporters and the playing community alike. The centrepiece of this project is the refresh of www.englandrugby.com, demonstrating how new delivery and design techniques have resulted in a much better user experience.

However, achieving this new digital user experience wouldn’t be possible without the bedrock of data that it’s built on. This is the story behind the unglamorous yet incredibly important work involved to make sense of this information and ensure it is used to its full potential.

A limitless amount of data is created in the world around us. Every click or swipe, the purchase of a ticket or merchandise, IoT sensors at stadiums, tackles made and points scored. The RFU is acutely aware that this data is an important asset and is focused on using it to improve the game at every level. They have a clear objective to utilise their channels and create value from all available data sources and interactions, and then reinvest that value back into English rugby.

To allow this to happen, a trusted foundation of data is essential. It must be easy to access and interpret, and most importantly, highly secure. To futureproof the data set, it needs to be housed in an open architecture, with high availability that can scale to meet peaks in demand, whether that is match day or important team announcements.

Importantly, the accessibility must be extended to the wider rugby community. This could be amateur clubs and players inputting match data at the weekend, or loyal fans providing feedback on their match day experience. This is a key component of the RFU’s strategic plan.

The RFU worked with a development team at IBM Garage to implement a user-centric design approach and agile principles to build and scale this data platform. Data from various sources was brought together securely, compliant with RFU consent guidelines and all other relevant legal regulations. Adhering to the open architecture principals of cloud, open source and APIs, all data was hosted in PostgreSQL database using Kubernetes and event streams on IBM public cloud.

The result is a flexible, open platform that gives the RFU easy access to its data which is already paying dividends. The platform is currently processing around 7 million API calls on a monthly basis. Half a million of these API calls happen on a typical match day, with data from 2,000 fixtures around England submitted every week. Being hosted on the cloud allows the database to handle these changes in peak demand, ensuring consistent service to all users.

Like all great rugby teams, investing in the present is what creates the winning tactics for success in the future. And for the RFU, investing in the data means winning solutions are created for both the online and offline game – and the initial results are looking very positive. So far, the data is helping community rugby engagement projects, improving the fan experience, and informing personalised marketing campaigns, but there is potential for so much more. This is really only the beginning.


Read More: How Leatherhead FC is using IBM’s AI to up their game.