While virtual reality (VR) has been on the ideas board of most agencies at some point in the last few years, the investment and brands that continue to develop the technology, and the ways in which marketing embraces it, suggests the VR is not going anywhere, anytime soon. In fact, as rights holders, governing bodies and broadcasters start to join the party, the signs are there that this technology may not meet the same fate of its predecessors.
Out of the myriad updates from this month's F8 Conference, one stood out as having significant implications for the future of sports marketing: Oculus Venues.
It’s fair to say virtual reality hasn’t had the easiest of rides so far. Nausea; lack of quality; unfulfilled expectation and low adoption; all claims levelled at this burgeoning technology.
However, news of Oculus’ latest offering - an app to house live event content - along with new and reduced-cost hardware suggests all that could be about to change. Launch partnerships with the NBA, NFL, NHL and WWE - not to mention Live Nation from the world of music and entertainment - also show Oculus might finally mean business.
So what about the implications for the live sport experience? First off, let’s look at the opportunities for increasing audiences.
A quick look at Manchester United’s Facebook page will show you that they have 73 million fans globally - the third biggest sports team on the platform behind Real Madrid and Barcelona. Then, consider Old Trafford’s stadium capacity of (just) 74,000 - the biggest in the Premier League. That’s 0.1% of their total Facebook fan base that they can physically fit into the stadium every week.
A platform such as Oculus Venues could give clubs like Manchester United the opportunity to engage the remaining 99.9% in a meaningful way. Those fans that were previously miles (literally) away from getting a ticket to the Theatre of Dreams; instead catching the game via an illegal stream - could now enjoy a stadium experience with just a few clicks.
In a world where traditional sport viewing figures are declining for many global sport properties (Premier League included), the proposition of extending the ‘stadium experience’ to an audience 100x bigger certainly seems like an attractive one.
However with that increased audience, comes the added pressure to offer a unique and engaging experience to achieve cut through. Recent research from Ipsosshowed the content resonated most with VR users was “truly appealing content that ‘adds value’...by feeling like a special experience that could only have been conveyed in VR and not through any other media.”
Virtual reality is still a long way from truly recreating the visceral atmosphere of a sporting stadium in full voice. But what it might currently lack in generating that real-life excitement, it can more than make up for in personalisation.
In VR, fans can be almost fully be in charge of what they see. If you’re not a fan of Clive Tyldsley and Glenn Hoddle’s commentary, switch to someone else. Missed a key moment? No problem; rewind and replay at your leisure. The opportunities are endless: different camera angles; exclusive access; half time entertainment from your favourite artist; in-game analysis - all have the potential to be personalised for your viewing pleasure.
And where do brands get to play in this new virtual reality of sports viewing? For those willing to move quickly and innovate, the potential is huge. Fans watching sport in a totally new format effectively opens the door to a whole new real estate for brands to consider.
In today’s game, you’ll see pitchside hoardings at Old Trafford for any manner of wines, tyres, coffees, mattresses, airlines or logistics - all among the global partners for the club.
However imagine the scenario: you’re watching United vs City in the latest Manchester derby. Juan Mata curls in an injury time winner from outside the box in the latest adidas Predator boots. Absolute scenes! The TV camera cuts to Mata wielding away in celebration, Casillero del Diablo hoardings glowing in the background. Rioja all round? Maybe.
But those watching in VR? They get a totally different experience. Seconds after the ball hits the net, an adidas Predator hoarding appears. So far, so impressive. But then what if that hoarding is clickable? Just one click from the sporting action and you’re onto the product page, where you can immediately purchase Mata’s boots and have your own tilt at recreating footballing magic. The consumer journey from inspirational on-pitch moment to product purchase page reduced to one click and a matter of seconds: just like that.
That’s just one example of many opportunities on the horizon. Consider the simple but impactful functionality of serving content bespoke to the audience’s native language. For clubs; the opportunity to maximise revenue with relevant brand partners in multiple locations as opposed to just one that pays through the nose for the actual stadium real estate.
With every new innovation the rules of sports marketing continue to be rewritten. The days of splashing a logo on a shirt, a stadium stand or a pitchside hoarding and hoping the fans in the stadium or watching on TV will notice, are long gone. These days, sports fans demand more: more sport, with more quality, delivered in a way that reflects their behaviours.
Is virtual reality the golden goose to help answer those challenges? Time will tell.
But in this brave new world, one thing’s for certain: fortune will favour the brand that can engage its audience credibly. If you can demonstrate your brand has the right to be at the heart of the biggest moments in sport, the potential of virtual reality is very real indeed.