Why artificial intelligence could be secret to next NRL broadcast deal


Rugby league is a made-for-TV sport, but faces a problem with the X and Y generations drifting away from linear TV. The code’s challenge is to appeal to a generation that prefers to watch highlights on smartphones, rather than invest in a 100-minute telecast of a game on a big screen.

Technology that uses advanced data science across multi camera angles and algorithms of historic try-scoring situations to effectively predict a try – packaged in 20-second or longer segments – would be additionally attractive to the short-attention-span generation.

Could artificial intelligence have predicted James Tedesco’s State of Origin series-winning try last year?Credit:AAP

Colin Smith of Global Media and Sports believes the NRL’s digital arm, nrl.com, which has more than a million visitors, could link with WSC Sports to use their technology and sell near live highlights separately to interested broadcasters.

Alternatively, nrl.com could be sold to one of the big digital giants, such as Netflix or Amazon, to stream vision on mobile phones.

Smith, who admits to being a critic of former ARLC chairman John Grant when he invested $150 million over six years in nrl.com, agrees with incumbent chairman Peter V’landys that, currently, it is an asset with minimum value.

However, he believes it can be reconfigured and build on its existing fan engagement, saying: “What nrl.com must have is long-term, multi-year rights to NRL content that provide a growing stream of revenues for the ARLC or new owners.

“Most of the sports viewership of generations X and Y is via their smartphone and it’s unlikely when they are older with families, mortgages [and paying off COVID-19] they will ever return to sport on linear TV.

“Sports like the NRL must design live or near live content they will watch and critically pay for. One offering of nrl.com could be based on the technology that was invented by the Israelis to protect their citizens.”

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In the same way some veteran league watchers called the thrilling Cowboys try that drew the 2015 NRL grand final seconds ahead of it being scored, algorithms can be used to anticipate tries and fed into broadcasts of games.

TV network bosses would probably say, “I already pay my commentators to do that”, but no human eye can simultaneously do the work of multi angles and advanced data science with unique algorithms.

The “anatomy of a try” can be projected onto the big screen at stadiums but is primarily aimed to supplement highlights packages provided to smartphones.

“The NRL, as a matter of urgency, should build the business case and financial model that defines the value of a reconfigured nrl.com that includes all of its current content and live/near live highlights,” Smith says.

“I accept that current broadcast rights do not enable the NRL to offer this content in addition to what has already been contracted. But, with the ARLC probably looking at a long-term TV contract in the post-coronavirus world, nrl.com could become a significant asset to sell.

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“Designed appropriately and quickly, it could address the NRL revenue challenges.

“The payment by the new owner of nrl.com would be an upfront acquisition fee plus an ongoing royalty fee to the NRL. The contract should be open to the current NRL broadcasters plus the four digital behemoths – Google, YouTube, Amazon, Facebook – plus the sports betting agencies and the OTT specialists such as Eleven, DAZN.”

Grant, when speaking to the Herald following criticism on his legacy by outgoing Souths boss Shane Richardson, claimed nrl.com could always become a saleable asset.

“If monetisation was made a priority, nrl.com could be worth a great deal of money,” he said.

Given the parlous state of ARLC finances as a result of coronavirus shutdown, the incumbent broadcasters probably have the upper hand in negotiations. However, Smith believes nrl.com could be the code’s gold pass, achieving Grant’s ambition of it being “a Netflix for rugby league fans”.

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