Doing IT on Grand Final Day

They are traditional Aussie sports with long histories, but even AFL and NRL can’t escape the pervasiveness of IT. From IT managers to humble technicians, people behind the scenes are hard at work all season to ensure smooth operations on Grand Final day.

It’s a mammoth task and IT decision makers in the sports field must ensure the coaching staff and players have the right equipment running to help them to make better and more tactical gameplaying decisions than the opposition. It’s how games can be won or lost explains Adelaide Crows IT manager, Steve Honkoop.

“Nothing is ever going to replace people, but people make decisions given the information they have and that’s what IT is good at,” he said.

The AFL’s standard statistics gathering software, Sports Code, allows coaching staff to capture footage and record a play or special movement for one of the players. The coaches can immediately access the particular footage marked, either during a break or after the match, providing instant feedback in the best way possible — visually.

Another way IT contributes to decision making in sports is through GPS technology. Nominated players, usually the big runners, wear a small GPS-transmitter on their upper back, which analyses data from eleven sensors around the ground. The data is fed into a software system, which coaching staff see in real time on their computers during a match.

A member of staff tracks and contextualises the data from the GPS into a form that the coaching team can use. GPS data collected from match days and during training can tell a coach about the player’s position on the field, his speed, distance and acceleration. It also helps in tracking the team’s structure throughout a match.

It is this sports science aspect and competitive advantage which AFL IT manager, Andrew Young, believes spurred on the concept of ‘football IT’.

“More and more we’re finding football IT is taking a predominantly stronger role at the clubs, as opposed to the traditional corporate IT role, he said”

Two hours before the first siren, Young says football IT staff from the clubs begin wiring up the coaches box, for statistics, video analytics and GPS tracking. With all these systems in place, it is then up to the coaches to interpret the data in the way they see fit.

“That’s why coaches have a big responsibility. If every coach looked at the data and made the same decision we’d have a pretty boring competition,” Honkoop said.

Just as critical on the day are the communications systems in place, for which Young sets the wheels in motion. A centralised mail routing platform for all the AFL Grand Final Day media releases kicks in, whereby the club media managers send email releases to a central email address, which Young and the AFL team route out to sporting journalists around the country.

The minute the final siren blares, the spin doctors from each club begin emailing press releases and hosting media conferences.

“We must make sure that the email system is up and running,” he said.

Communications also extends to statistics provider, Champion Data, for essential video and statistics analysis. Clubs keep their own data, but they need Champion Data statistics to keep an eye on the kicks, handballs and movements of opposition players throughout the match.

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In preparation for Grand Final day, the IT team switches from the AFL’s Nortel telephony system to a system by voice recognition specialist, Inference Communications, enabling the AFL to keep on top of the deluge of calls it receives from supporters during finals time.

In the four weeks leading up to the Grand Final, the AFL receives about 7000 phone calls from its members and the public, with a barrage of queries about tickets and other aspects of the finals series.

Consequently, the short-term switchover allows the AFL to notify callers about finals’ games, ticket entitlements, broadcast details and event information and a ‘call steering’ service guides callers to the most appropriate information, person or department. The service runs 24/7 throughout the finals.

“Football is passionate and the supporters get anxious about missing out on information related to seeing their team play, so we need to quickly and efficiently supply the information they require, to provide the best possible service to our members,” AFL manager of membership and ticketing, Darren Birch, said.

Off-field, the staff behind the scenes at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium, which plays host to the NRL Grand Final, are kept busy implementing strategies to collect data from patrons throughout the season, to make sure their experience on the sidelines, witnessing all the action of Grand Final day, is a memorable one.

Business systems manager, James Baird, readies the stadium’s 380 point of sale (POS) machines to make sure NRL club members receive their designated discounts at food and beverage outlets when they swipe their membership card on match day.

The profiling information collected from members goes into a database for future reference, so clubs and the stadium know what members like and where they go.

“Typically, when someone came through the gates in the past, you lost track of what they did. This information helps us work out what people like and what they don’t like, so you can get some nice information on your members and do some targeted marketing based on that,” Baird said.

ANZ Stadium is synonymous with large sporting events and hosts four different codes of football. It attracts a capacity crowd of 83,500 on NRL Grand Final day.

Baird says one of the biggest challenges for the venue is access control — ensuring all 83,500 people are specifically ticketed and targeted towards certain gates for venue access.

The stadium has also implemented Bluetooth receivers outside food and beverage outlets around the ground to tempt the tastebuds of patrons as they walk by. Members can also order and pre-pay for food hampers for match day online.

Baird says ANZ Stadium is always looking to improve services offered to members and the general public.

“ANZ stadium is a young venue and the team is quite dynamic in terms of making changes and looking at better ways to do things,” he said.

The ticketing challenge

For NRL manager of new media and CRM, Marnie Hobbs, for the first challenge of Grand Final day is all about bums on seats.

Throughout the home and away season, all membership and fan marketing is done through the NRL’s customer relationship management (CRM) system, using StayinFront’s Web-based CRM offering.

For the first time ever this year, MyNRL web members had the opportunity to purchase Grand Final tickets, along with club members, before the general public.

The strategy around the early offering was to thank the loyal web members who come online during the season to enter footy tips and fantasy teams. Hobbs and the NRL also hope that offering an early foot-in-the-door to purchase tickets for a premium event will drive fans to sign up online for the next season.

“Eighty per cent of the grand final tickets available were sold through the Club members and MyNRL pre sale buying windows,” Hobbs said. “Sixty per cent of those sales were online, accounting for $1.2 million of the $1.9 million in revenue to date.”

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September is roll-out subscription month for the NRL — a program aimed at driving new members to sign up online at MyNRL. This year, Hobbs says, the NRL will trial social networking technologies such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook to sign up new recruits.

Along with the loyal die-hard fans that flock to a venue on Grand Final day, journalists and other members of the media come in with a job to perform which is just as important as the players. IT manager at ANZ Stadium, David Fletcher, says the venue is always increasing its wireless coverage and the current fibre-link connected to the stadium can cope with up to 100 megabytes of downloads, ensuring journalists and photographers can keep the action coming to people’s computer screens.

In the grandstands, the stadium’s POS functionality and reliability is another crucial aspect of grand final day operations. In the half hour period leading up to kick off, up to 40,000 transactions take place and during half-time, the venue processes up to 100,000.

“Ten minutes after half-time the bars have to shut in accordance with responsible service of alcohol guidelines. So as many people as possible have to be served,” said Fletcher, adding that all 380 POS registers have the ability to run in offline mode.

Early 2008, in the largest deployment in Australia of its kind, ANZ Stadium upgraded to the latest version touchscreen POS terminals and the venue virtualised the POS back-end server application using VMware’s Vi3 solution.

Baird says the new system has removed the arduous manual processes of the old system and helped with the venue’s bottom line. It has also boosted the capacity of the servers do deal with heavy demand.

For AFL’s Young, Grand Final day marks the culmination of a year’s work connecting the AFL clubs under his watch. With direct control of 600 staff across the AFL and related state bodies and indirect control of 5108 people across the AFL industry, Young oversees the shared services solution, hosted by Citrix.

The solution includes finance and payroll for 10 AFL clubs, and its smooth sailing ensures players, coaches and officials can focus on the games and perform at their elite level.

Adelaide’s Honkoop says the AFL is magnanimous with their IT offerings for all the clubs. Along with the shared services model, IT managers across the clubs are encouraged to meet yearly to share stories and tips.

Honkoop says there is a lot of transparency between the clubs, to ensure no club is disadvantaged by the misuse of match day technologies.

“Football’s exciting because every week you have something to really look forward to and it’s a challenge because rather than compare yourself with a competitor yearly, it’s weekly,” he said.

“You’re comparing yourself with the competition every week, which is very exciting.”

This article originally appeared in Computerworld Australia's August/September print edition. To subscribe please email Computerworld or go to our subscription page. You can also follow @computerworldau on Twitter and let us know.

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