Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Social Innovation: Rugby League Refs take to Twitter

Most of you won't follow Rugby League.  If you follow a team sport it is more likely to be football or cricket and, if it is rugby, it is more likely to be Rugby Union.

That's ok.  Whilst Rugby League is huge in Australia, the fascination with it in the UK tends to cluster along the M62 corridor between Widnes and Hull where most of the top-flight Superleague sides ply their trade, accompanied by a single team from London and, even more obscurely, for those who don’t know the game's history, a team based in Perpignan in the south of France.

You might imagine, therefore, that the support for a game played across only a relatively specific geography might be somewhat lacklustre.  Although, you might not be surprised to find that the fans are vocal, active and come together to form a family which unites fans of the sport from all clubs in a way which is scarcely replicated in other sporting arenas.  Tickets for the sport's flagship events, the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley and the Grand Final at Old Trafford are snapped up by fans months in advance and well ahead of any certainty as to which teams might actually be competing.   Rugby League fans simply love watching Rugby League and yes, they're happiest watching their own team, especially watching their own team win, but they are also passionate about the sport as a whole, often going to watch their own side play and then supplementing this by watching as many other games as are televised each weekend from February to October.

Another unique aspect to the game is that of the role played by the referees and other match officials.  Drawn from a relatively small pool, Superleague referees are all known by name to the fans and attract their own "support" and criticism based on their reputation, or where they reside (particularly where it is uncomfortably close to the opposing team!).  In football (the association variety), only a few high profile referees tend to be known by name to fans. 

Innovations in the Rugby League have seen the use of two referees per game (at least in its televised form in the UK - in Australia, they even have two refs on the pitch!).  Recent Challenge Cup coverage on the BBC (as opposed to Sky which picks up all Superleague broadcasting) even allowed viewers not only to see what the video ref was scrutinising as he mulled over his decisions, but they could even hear his comments as he went through the thought-process leading up to his decision.

However, one of the newest and most significant of the recent innovations implemented by the Rugby Football League is Ask The Ref.

The officials have recently banded together under a single Twitter name:  @RFLReferees and announced to fans that any (polite) questions sent their way via Twitter... in fact any tweets containing the hashtag #asktheref... will be reviewed by them as a group and several of them selected and retweeted from the @RFLReferees account with an accompanying answer and the initials of the referee who's written the response.

After the weekend's games, the referees (amongst many other things) review these tweets and the responses are shared on Twitter on a Tuesday afternoon.  For Superleague afficionados, they make fascinating reading.  For the onlooker, perhaps not so much.  But I'd urge those with an interest in social media to take a look, if only to consider the implications of this innovation, admire the spirit of the RFL in implementing this approach and imagine what the impact would be on other sports if direct contact with match officials was enabled in a similar way.

Take a look.

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