From nearly every perspective, 2016 is shaping up as the year of virtual reality.

Following a torrent of buzz at South by Southwest, CES and other confabs, marketers of nearly every stripe are using and/or exploring virtual reality as a platform to take sports and entertainment into the next dimension.

Virtual reality offers numerous benefits for both sponsors and properties. For sponsors, the technology provides one key benefit: a new way to engage consumers and enhance the event experience.

The technology offers sponsorship sellers three primary benefits:

  • A new sales tool
  • A new category to pitch
  • A new platform for sponsor servicing

Despite the small number of devices currently in the market, virtual reality is quickly going mainstream. Sixteen percent of male U.S. consumers have tried a VR headset, while 47 percent express interest in owning a device, according to a recent survey by Horizon Media.

Interest is expected to grow even more as new products enter the market, including this week’s much-anticipated release of the Oculus Rift. Other headsets launching this year include the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.

Products currently on the market include Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus and Google Cardboard, both of which are used with smartphones.

The virtual technology market is expected to reach $15.8 billion by 2020 with an annual compound growth rate of 63.2 percent between 2015 and 2020, according to Markets and Markets, a market research firm.

Despite its growing popularity, some industry insiders believe VR could lose interest as more consumers experience the technology.

“To me, virtual reality is eye candy. I’m not sure if it will be as popular in three years once the novelty wears off,” said Lesley Pinckney, GMR Marketing senior vice president of digital strategy.

“It’s more of a tactic than a strategy—it’s a different way to tell stories.”

IS VIRTUAL REALITY THE NEXT BIG THING?

Using Virtual Reality To Secure Real-World Deals
Some sponsorship sellers use virtual reality to showcase opportunities, including inventory that does not yet exist.

The NBA Sacramento Kings used VR to promote its new arena to prospective sponsors and premium suite holders. Prospects who donned a VR headset could take a 3-D tour of the venue’s plaza, concourse and arena bowl.

The team subsequently sold naming rights to Golden 1 Credit Union.

“The new arena will be a global benchmark for innovation, sustainability and technology. Utilizing virtual reality helps bring the Golden 1 Center to life in a way that we couldn’t have done with any other technology,” Chris Granger, Sacramento Kings president and chief operator officer, told IEG SR in 2016.

The NBA Portland Trail Blazers use VR to enhance sponsor recaps.

The Trail Blazers used the technology to capture footage of the Toyota Half-Court Shot for a post-season meeting with the Portland Metro Toyota Dealers Assn, with the goal of giving a feel for what it’s like to view a half-court shot from the floor of the Moda Center.

Sponsorship sellers also are leveraging VR as a new sponsorship category.

Six Flags Entertainment Corp. this month announced a multiyear partnership with Samsung Electronics America, Inc. The electronics giant is using the sponsorship to promote Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus headsets as part of its designation as the theme park’s official technology partner.

The sponsorship affords nine “Virtual Reality Roller Coasters,” around which attendees can enhance the physical ride with a synchronized virtual experience. Six New Revolution virtual reality coasters will transport riders to a futuristic battle to save the planet from an alien invasion, while three Superman VR coasters will take riders soaring next to Superman as he battles Lex Luthor.

Samsung also is using the Six Flags content outside of the theme parks. That includes a coaster-themed VR experience around its sponsorship of this month’s South by Southwest conference and its 837 flagship store in New York City.

Samsung also is using VR to activate the International Olympic Committee. The company last month delivered “the world’s first-ever virtual reality live streaming of Olympic Games” with content from the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games opening ceremony. The live stream featured immersive angles of the Olympic torch parade, Parade of Nations and other opening ceremony events.

Fans in the Samsung Galaxy Studios in Lillehammer, the Samsung Experience Store in Oslo and other locations around the world could access the content on Olympics.org using Samsung Galaxy smartphones and Gear VR.