When Stadiums Met Augmented Reality

By Ben Woods, Lead Consultant, Two Circles, A Part of ESP Properties Oct 4, 2016

When Stadiums Met Augmented Reality

These are unprecedented times in our industry. The last 12 months alone have presented us with numerous first-of-a-kind rights deals for live sporting events. The National Hockey League’s deal with partner Yahoo is one such example, enabling fans to stream out-of-market games for free without the need for a cable subscription or authentication.

Innovation appears to be a central theme for the NHL as it looks to cement the World Cup of Hockey 2016 as a major event in the ice hockey calendar. The two-week tournament untilised digitally enhanced hockey dasherboards in games to make the event more interactive for fans and enhance the experience for viewers at home.

A Time of Transformational Change
Augmented reality has seen a revival in recent years, with Apple being the latest to announce plans following its latest iPhone launch. Sport is no different, with digital replacement technology (or DRT) earning more exposure and column inches. I prefer to avoid jargon wherever possible so, in simple terms, DRT is the development of in-stadia signage that enables different messages to be displayed to different audiences in real-time via a separate broadcast feed.

The imminent evolution of in-stadia signage presents new opportunities for rights owners in a world where physical signage has always been inherently limited. Imagine the potential for personalising in-game messages to fans watching a live event based on their interests and location—or even IP address.

DRT isn’t new, however. Manchester United’s “Front Row” campaign provided us with an early case study of its application when the club partnered with Google+ back in 2014. La Liga has been actively testing it for a few seasons, while the technology itself has been in development mode for far longer. So, what’s next?

Let’s Take a Step Back...
Next-generation signage could become a real game-changer. It would require rights owners to become far more familiar with audiences that aren’t sitting in a stadium. But it would allow messages to fans inside the bowl to become exclusively about the live experience, while balancing commercial objectives by targeting those watching elsewhere with branded advertising content.

We’ve therefore reached a turning point. Most would be forgiven for thinking that the future of signage is solely in the hands of rights owners. After all, they own the venue and the physical signage that is on display for all to see. However, we must remember that it’s the broadcaster that also influences the wider distribution of the very thing that fans want to watch—live sport.

Broadcasters are therefore set to play an important role in the future of next generation signage, regardless of who sells the advertising space. Admittedly, it’s harder to define “broadcaster” in today’s media landscape. Until recently, broadcasters have predominantly delivered content to our screens in a linear fashion. With the emergence of over-the-top (OTT) services, DRT could well generate a more pronounced shift in the distribution and generation of media value as we know it.

...Before Making the Leap Forward
The World Cup of Hockey 2016 provides us a glimpse into the future of next-gen stadium signage. However, given what we know about the fragmentation of broadcast rights from one territory to another, it might not be as simple as replicating elsewhere what works well for the NHL.

For instance, the way in which broadcast rights are sold by the NBA in North America is very different to the approach taken by La Liga in Spain. Thus, the complexity of the broadcast arrangement and the ease of integrating rights owner content with production capability will vary from one sports property to the next.

Given the number of stakeholders already involved in advertising signage, from content production to rights negotiation, DRT mustn’t be made any more complicated than it has to be. Naturally, this is easier said than done. For it to become a reality, the sport industry must not assume it will be as simple as overlaying technology onto existing hardware “et voila”…

What Does Success Look Like?
First and foremost, the industry needs to pick a definitive name for next-gen signage. I’m not precious about using the term DRT, but if we break it down to its (conveniently simplified) core elements, the following need to be true for it to be a long-term success:

  • The technology integrates with a broader, non-linear broadcast model
  • The broadcaster plays a collaborative role and embraces the technology
  • The rights owner is clear about what they are purchasing

The latter is crucial. The fundamental opportunity of DRT lies in the ability for audiences to be targeted and for brand exposure to be measured and analysed. This means data must be part of the proposition, so rights owners/holders subsequently need to be clear if they are merely purchasing the technology to enable next-gen signage or whether they will also be offered the analytics to demonstrate its worth.

Such analytics shouldn’t be limited to evaluating the value derived for brands and sponsors, either. They should also provide the insight that continues to enhance the experience of fans sitting inside and outside the stadium by understanding what works best with each audience.

A Perfect Partnership
If sport does indeed make a move towards an internet-enabled distribution model, over-the-top services will become increasingly prevalent. OTT lends itself to becoming a natural partner of DRT, enabling even more hyper-targeted options for brands to reach online audiences.

As with all major innovation, it will take the DRT pioneers to get the ball rolling and establish a baseline for a new age of in-stadia signage. Once major properties such as NHL and La Liga have demonstrated its potential, it will be over to the more nimble, early adopters to continue raising the bar.

For that to happen, there are three things we believe rights owners need for in-stadia signage to evolve:

  • Don’t think it will be a simple transition. All stakeholders must be involved and will need to pull together to overcome initial complexities
  • It’s more than just technology. It’s a new channel, not an isolated solution, and must therefore complement a broader strategy of delivering digital rights value to partners
  • Audience knowledge is key. A broader understanding of audiences in the stadium and outside of it will be the key to reap the long-term benefits.

It might be too soon for next-gen signage to be on full display at Super Bowl LI or the IAAF World Championships 2017, but its potential is clear for all to see. Pun very much intended.


fan engagement sports digital media



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