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The gradual re-opening of stadia and sports venues offers a chance to reimagine the matchday experience. Faisal Galaria, chief exec of Blippar, explains the opportunity.

While TV and digital streaming have played a critical role in bringing sports into fans’ homes, the experiences they offer have never changed. Fans live and breathe sport and want immersive experiences that put sport at their fingertips, even outside of game-time, and AR is the answer. The technology creates a new visual medium that offers stronger 3D immersion and greater interaction. 

Picture the scene; you’re stepping out on to Centre Court at Wimbledon, or on to the pitch in front of a capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium, or even on to The Diamond at Yankee Stadium. The roar of the crowd is in your ears and your favorite teammates are by your side. Only you’re not there – you’re potentially hundreds of miles away in the comfort of your own home, and you’re engaging with sport like never before using your smartphone and augmented reality (AR) technology. 

With 2.4 billion mobile AR users estimated by 2023, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Boston Celtics fan living in Boston, Lincolnshire – AR is bringing sport home. 

For the fans: adding a new dimension to sports events

AR has been used in the sports industry for a while; in 2018, the Dallas Cowboys engaged its 93,000 home fans at the AT&T stadium with an AR overlay that gave viewers access to images of 80 larger-than-life players, and as the game progressed the AR experience overlaid players’ stats and performances on to the action.

Since then the technology has been adopted more widely. The NBA uses the mobile app HomeCourt to engage fans by providing instant feedback on plays and performances. Fox News also used AR overlays as part of their live broadcast of matches to overlay stats, and Microsoft’s HoloLens looks set to bring AR player avatars into fans’ living rooms during game-time experiences. This level of immersion cannot be achieved in a traditional TV viewing experience – AR technology can transform the user experience and allow fans to feel more connected to their favorite teams. 

The technology is amplifying fan excitement and engagement around every aspect of the sport experience – from gamified experiences where they can take on their friends, bringing tickets to life before the game has even begun, or a stadium visit like never before.

For example, by utilizing AR, fans can visit, walk around and access all areas of a stadium tour virtually from anywhere and at any moment in time using their smart devices. Seeing the stadium appear in glorious 3D, users can be guided around the entire stadium and be fully immersed using 360°-field-of-view images and video. Users can be accompanied by one of the players, leading and introducing each area of the stadium while providing insights and knowledge, and utilizing binaural audio and atmospheric sounds. AR can create a truly personal and unique experience.

For the brands: engaging audiences around the sports they love

It’s not just fans that should be excited about the opportunities offered by AR – brands should be too. We’re already seeing brands and teams engaging with fans in new ways outside of game-time via social media like Twitter and TikTok, but through technological advancements the possibilities of AR now go way beyond this. 

This new technology is bringing extra engagement and excitement to an experience fans already cherish – trying on the latest season’s kit. Whether it’s letting fans try on the new kit before it is released via AR, building anticipation and excitement further, or expanding that experience by including branded elements from kit sponsors that link to websites, external experiences or purchasing journeys, AR is widening the marketing funnel and building positive brand perception.

The ‘try before you buy’ experience creates value for clubs and sponsors, and with the replica football kit market valued at billions of pounds per year, using AR to add value for fans and brands alike has huge potential. Taking the large number of partners and kit sponsors Premier league football teams can have, the AR ‘try-on’ experience allows consumers to check out the new season's kit in larger-than-life form, view it from any angle and customize the jersey to add that personal touch, and when they are happy with it they can purchase the kit directly from the AR experience. The seamless experience not only provides engaging entertainment that boosts awareness and direct connection for brand sponsors, but also offers them a new source of inventory.

The heightened interactivity AR technology brings to ad campaigns gives brands a strong competitive advantage. Dr Pepper’s Tuition Toss, held at halftime during the College Football Conference Championship games, used AR to enable its annual competition to take place in an augmented environment. Activated through WebAR, the campaign allowed socially-distanced contestants to compete digitally for a $200,000 tuition sweepstake.

Pepsi leveraged AR to launch an AR football game, accessed simply by scanning a can of Pepsi Max, that treated fans not only to the game but also behind-the-scenes footage and links to skill videos – keeping fans’ attention for far longer than a branded can alone would have. Brands and sponsors alike can use AR to create new marketing opportunities and advertising inventory to reach fans wherever they are, and forge a direct and lasting connection.

TV was the ‘first half’ of bringing sport home, but provides a static experience that hasn’t changed much in over 60 years. It’s clear that, with such versatility of application at its disposal, AR is the next step to bring fans closer to the sport they love. Providing dynamic, engaging, lasting experiences to fans – globally and democratically, via access to mobile phones and increased 5G connectivity – and greater outreach opportunities for brands and teams, AR has the potential to be the next MVP for sports marketing and advertising. Maybe in the near future we’ll hear fans chanting ‘who AR ya?’ from stands around the world. 

Faisal Galaria is chief executive officer at Blippar.