Professional sports have long been far ahead in embracing immersive technology when compared to the likes of amusement parks, casinos, and movie theaters. The reasons are simple: sports fans demand the latest and greatest innovation so they can better listen, watch, and experience the game as it happens. New immersive technologies including augmented reality, virtual reality, and the Internet of Things promise to be the next game-changers that completely reboot the way fans interact with teams, players and brand sponsors.
There are many ways sports teams are embracing new technology. We at the Sacramento Kings, for example, have invested in a wide range of initiatives, hosting a Reddit “Ask me Anything” with players, using Facebook Live to interview players, streaming games in virtual reality, embracing cryptocurrency by accepting bitcoin payments, and even mining cryptocurrency to support local scholarships.
The New York Jets, meanwhile, have led digital fan engagement in the NFL with real-time graphics and Next Gen stats collected from Zebra chips embedded in footballs and player shoulder pads, became the first team in the NFL to launch a mobile subscription-based season-long ticket program, and even have a consumer facing app complete with artificially intelligent chatbot called JOAN and the predictive game “I Called It” that lets fans predict the outcomes of plays. But it is the digital infrastructure in newly-built “stadiums of the future” like the Kings’ Golden 1 Center that enables teams to integrate AR, the internet of things, and even VR into the fan experience.
Building for the future
The Golden 1 Center was built live up to the credo “more code than concrete.” It provides a myriad of new customer-centric features. The Golden 1 Center includes a 6,000-square-foot data center with two 100 gigabit-per-second pipes churning away at data. Because of this, fans can access more bandwidth than 17,000 homes, potentially powering over 500,000 Instagram photo uploads and Snapchat snaps per second.
Hyper-connected sports venues are essential to providing fans with 21st century experiences. With the average age of many stadiums stretching into 30-plus years, infrastructure has often fallen behind the mobile and digital revolution of the last decade. Most stadiums and sports arenas simply are not optimized to take advantage of mobile devices and as some teams, like the Kings, begin to integrate core IoT technology into their arenas to provide a more engaging fan experience, more will soon follow.
Beyond the arena
Now if you think you’ll be running alongside your favorite player in VR any time soon, you may want to think again. It is augmented reality, not virtual reality, that dominates the NBA in-arena experience, while VR is being used to broadcast select games on TV. Wearable AR is quickly gaining a dedicated fanbase and is earning major endorsements from celebrity athletes and sports leagues. Magic Leap, the elusive producer of high-end AR headsets, recently announced a partnership with the NBA by having Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal to test out their secretive AR “sunglasses,” Magic Leap One.
However, wearable technology is currently cost-prohibitive for most fans. Until this hardware is widely available and the prices for wearables decrease, the success of these technologies won’t hit critical mass. Sports teams today don’t have to wait around for wearables to be perfected, but instead can already deploy smartphone-activated AR in their arenas to delight fans and change the way everyday people interact with their surroundings.
By harnessing the power of fans’ existing mobile devices, sports franchises can provide new ways to connect each person to the physical stadium around them. When connected by an iOS or Android phone, almost every arena guest can access a wide variety of interactive capabilities, which is made possible by already onboard device sensors. These sensors can communicate with everyday stadium technology in the same way that Apple Pay allows users to interact with registers. The video board, ticket scanners, turnstiles, ibeacons, and yes, concession stand cash registers, can all be connected to in fresh, innovative ways by the thousands of fans armed with smart devices.
Why innovation is needed
Immersive technology creates a tremendous avenue for sports teams like the Kings to engage a worldwide audience using a broad, multi-channel digital marketing strategy that provides value to both the team and the end user. When paired with a team’s proprietary app, immersive AR and IoT technology can provide fans with everything from the ability to watch game replays, access transportation and parking, order food and drink to their seats, purchase seat upgrades and even win prizes through activations like the Kings’ AR T-shirt cannon and predictive gaming in-app experience.
Since the advent and widespread adoption of radio, television and streaming video, sports fans have demanded the latest innovations in technology to enhance how they experience the game. However, keeping up with the latest trends is not always easy for stadiums and arenas that often operate on slim profit margins and don’t always have the budget for massive infrastructure updates. With the next major change in digital innovation already upon us, many cannot see the value in massive infrastructure changes, much less where to start.
At the same time, the demand from fans and sponsors is becoming clearer every day — to keep up with the demands of today’s fanbase, a new breed of immersive technology experiences that activate consumers and help them move from being passive observers to actively-engaged participants is critical for keeping everyone focused on the game and their favorite team. By adopting a tech-forward philosophy, and by prioritizing investing in the newest technology applications that can impact the world of sports, teams can allow fans to more fully enjoy their time watching the game, whether in the arena or at home.
Without these innovations, we think arenas risk losing fan interest, can expect reduced revenues, and face the danger of becoming irrelevant in an increasingly connected and digital world.
Ryan Montoya begins his fifth season as Chief Technology Officer of the Sacramento Kings. His responsibilities include providing direction and managing the Sacramento Kings new technology and innovation strategies to enhance the fan experience and improve the team’s performance.
Alex Hertel is CEO and co-founder of Xperiel. He is an entrepreneur, academic, industry innovator, and inventor who is the author of many patents.