Emerging TechnologyHow can augmented reality enhance the experience for sports fans?

How can augmented reality enhance the experience for sports fans?

As people continue to second-screen and expect more from venues, AR gives brands the opportunity to improve the experience.

Philips Arena, where the Atlanta Hawks play basketball, is currently under construction. The revamped arena will include both a courtside bar and a barber shop. Yankee Stadium has a museum, while Hard Rock Stadium is home to both the Miami Dolphins and a nightclub where fans can watch their games.

Sports franchises and their venues have certainly evolved and of course, that evolution increasingly involves technology. Is augmented reality (AR) the best one to enhance the fan experience?

AR in the arena

Minnesota football fans can use the Vikings app to scan programs and unlock content such as game day videos and player interviews. During the first week of this NFL season, app downloads were 58% higher than usual.

“That sort of creates this fun experience for the fan to learn more about the team, which benefits them because more people are going to download the app. Or spend more time in it, if they already have it,” says Jeff Ridgeway, Head of Zappar US, an AR platform and creative studio.

Similarly, the MLB launched an AR app last year called At Bat. When game-goers point their smartphones at the field, the app displays players’ statistics, both standard (base percentage, batting average) and not (arm strength, catch probability). They can also follow the speed of every hit.

Nels Popp, a University of North Carolina professor who serves as President of the Sport Marketing Association, agrees that the AR experiences are cool. However, he sees it as more of a novelty than anything.

“There are some amazing things we can do with AR and VR, but to me, the experiences are kind of one-off,” he says. “Where do you go from there? Is that something I want to make a regular part of my sports consumption experience?”

Impacting the bottom line

Popp compares AR to fantasy sports. People enjoy it, but how much does it drive revenue and help teams sell tickets or merchandise? Still, he believes AR does have plenty of potential to impact the bottom line.


“There’s a sponsor activation opportunity. Sports organizations have compelling content that, say, Tide laundry detergent doesn’t have. Brands want to be involved with sports because people want to be here,” he says, pointing out an American Express activation from the US Open this summer.

The financial services giant sponsored an experience where Venus Williams gave fans pointers about tennis. They put that knowledge to work by hitting virtual tennis balls (at real targets) with 3D-printed racquet controllers.

It was an an experiential marketing arm of a campaign in which American Express is promoting its Amex Band contactless payment product. Naturally, those were available nearby.

Engaging the second-screeners

This technology enhances the experience at the venue, but what about everyone who’s not there? Live sports can be prohibitively expensive.

The Cleveland Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium is the most affordable in the league, with a mean ticket price of $88, nearly one-fifth the price of an average New England Patriots ticket. However, the hot dogs at Boston’s Gillette Stadium are 60% cheaper.

NFL Gillette Stadium

Millions of people watch sports at home and rarely with their undivided attention. Last year, eMarketer found that nearly 70% of U.S. adults are second-screeners. By adding value with AR, teams can potentially grab someone’s attention on TV or on their phones.

AR can complement the at-home TV-watching experience. Rigeway points out that it already has for decades.

“In its simplest form, AR is a live camera view with digital content,” he says. “X’s and O’s drawn on the play with digital arrows, that’s AR. First down line on the NFL is AR. It’s all digital content overlaid on real world camera view that gives the viewer more value, and it’s all a version of AR. We’ll have to crawl-walk-run with the technology, but we’ll get there. I think sports and AR will continue to be something.”

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