Brian O’Driscoll and Ray Nolan kick-off new start-up to bring rugby to world digital stage

13 Oct 20121 Share

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Irish software legend Ray Nolan and Irish rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll

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What happens when two legends in the fields of rugby and software get together? They build an app. Irish rugby star Brian O’Driscoll has joined forces with successful Irish software entrepreneur Ray Nolan to launch a new international rugby app that will form the fulcrum of a new media empire.

From today rugby fans all over the world will be able to download their new rugby app Ultimate Rugby for free from the Apple App Store. An Android version will follow in a fortnight’s time and other platforms as well as a mobile web version are in the works.

The app won’t be oriented around one team, geography or league, but aims to cover as many competitions around the world as possible including the Aviva Premiership, RaboDirect PRO12, the Heineken Cup, the Six Nations, the Rugby Championship and the majority of Tier 1 European and Southern Hemisphere tournaments.

The joint venture represents a serious investment for both Nolan and O’Driscoll, marrying their love of the sport with their conviction that a serious business opportunity needs to be seized upon.

Ten journalists and four technologists have been employed to cover matches around the world and the business model will centre on exploiting sponsorship opportunities and providing a much needed ‘second screen’ experience for fans of the game who want all the game info, analysis and fan chat in one place.

Both O’Driscoll and Nolan confirmed to me that as soon as possible they intend to expand the template to other sports where the same opportunity exists, such as golf and soccer.

Brian O’Driscoll is captain of the Irish rugby team and captained the Leinster team. He also captained the British and Irish Lions in their 2005 tour of New Zealand and is the second-most capped player in rugby union history.

Ray Nolan has built some of the most profitable web businesses from these shores, including Web Reservations International, which began as a booking engine for hostels, and spawned sites like Hostelworld.com, hostels.com and boo.com. Very quickly, Hostelworld.com grew to 12m visitors a month and Nolan drove the business forward, returning US$500m on an initial investment of €130,000.

Forming a new media company

Their new venture Rugby International aims to be the first ever global rugby app and online community that brings fans up to the minute news of all professional matches around the world. It will provide content, news and messages direct to fans’ smartphones from international professional rugby players.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, O’Driscoll explained that the partnership between himself and Nolan came about when Nolan was winner of the Ernst & Young Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2003.

“Ray was partnered as my mentor and we both came at this from different angles. We both realised that there are many apps focused solely on teams and leagues and decided what was missing was one all-encompassing app. Players also to be able to brand and to be able to monetise themselves. I learned this from the early 2000s.

“Ray, as a fan saw how this happened and by marrying our thoughts we came up with the initial concept for Ultimate Rugby.”

Nolan explained that what Ultimate Rugby represents is the formation of a new media company and he is approaching this with the same seriousness and vigour with which he approached Hostelworld.com.

“It’s no different than it was before for me. Hostelworld was trying to be complete in terms of joining all the hostels in the world. Ultimate Rugby is trying to bring all the rugby in the world into one place.

“This is about building a business of scale internationally. This is not an app just for Ireland or the UK, this is a fully international business endeavour.”

ultimate rugby

Evolution of a new industry model

Nolan says he has been watching the trends in terms of Twitter and celebrity endorsement. “It’s a very interesting time for social media and celebrity and we’re trying to marry the two.

“At a very basic level the fan wants one app that has everything. We will begin by covering 86 Tier 1 teams across the world and covering a lot of matches. With every match there are a lot of events and sponsorship opportunities and we are the perfect vehicle to deliver a message to fans going to the match or watching it on their TV.”

O’Driscoll explained that the key is to provide something for the core rugby fan but also make it accessible for people who also just want to know what’s going on.

“I showed it to my dad the other night and he was able to access the information he needed. It is very straightforward, with lots of detail and with relevance to the teams you are interested in. For example we’ll be playing Exeter in the Rugby Cup – I can see how they are getting on in the Aviva Premiership and can keep an eye on their progress.”

Nolan pointed out that the app is fine tuned to support the ‘second screen’ phenomena sweeping the TV world where fans of sports are watching programmes while interacting on tablet computers and smartphones at the same time.

“I was at matches and was using this and match chat is one of the ways of enhancing the experience where fans can talk among themselves about what is happening in the game in real-time.”

Looking ahead Nolan sees this as the start of a new global business. “I don’t do hobby projects. And I’ve always had two or three ventures on the go at the same time. This project consumes a lot of my time. The aim is to learn our lessons very quickly and role this model out to other sports too.

“There are a lot of sports out there that are a mishmash of online and offline and we think we can consolidate this into a rewarding, comprehensive experience for the fans, the players and their clubs.

“I’m seeing the evolution of a whole new industry. As a player and celebrity, Brian was a trailblazer in the dot.com world and he has a huge following on Twitter. In many ways he has set the rules of engagement for players and brands.

“This is a media company and looking ahead we will be focusing on who will pay, the value and the alignment of celebrities with a brand. It won’t like CPM ads in the dot.com world, it’s cloudy right now, but the rules around it are beginning to be set. This is a whole new business for me. But there are opportunities for monetisation because of where many of the matches are being played, the hotels, flights, ticketing and promotion.

“So there are early indications that it is going to be very viable from a financial perspective,” Nolan concluded.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com