Sports are failing to fully engage 99% of fans but AR is here to help.
I can see it now. It’s the fall of 2023, you and your friends virtually gather to watch the Carolina Panthers play division rival the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You use your augmented reality headset to see your buddies from across the world digitally sitting in your living room - even Marco, who’s still wearing his Tom Brady Buccaneers jersey after Brady finally retired.
As your fellow Panthers fans are gently mocking Marco when Carolina takes the lead, you activate the AR panther to complete the joke. Suddenly Marco hears the heavy breathing of an enormous digital cat behind him, and jumps off the couch in time to have the panther roar in his face. You all laugh together, thousands of miles apart but virtually in the same space.
Now, we are back to the present day. This season, the Carolina Panthers debuted a fantastic augmented reality presentation. It was incredible to watch a 3D-animated panther leaping through the stadium, shredding the opponent’s flag and roaring in triumph over thousands of fans for the first time.
The animation aired live only on the big screens at Bank of America Stadium, but it holds even greater promise for the many, many more fans who want to immersively experience the game at home with their friends. It’s been viewed almost 6 million times on Twitter.
What we’re seeing here is the NFL creating unique digital experiences aimed primarily at home viewers - and spending significant amounts of money to do it. Why is this happening, and what does it say about the virtual future of fandom?
Why Consumers Are Demanding New Fan Experiences
The most obvious driver for the escalation of virtual fan experiences was the stadium closures forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams, stadiums, and brands had to get creative about continuing to engage their audience when the in-person experience wasn’t available. And until COVID-19 is completely under control, many fans will not feel as comfortable attending games live.
However, the pandemic is not the only explanation for why consumers are demanding new digital fan experiences. The Famous Group, which developed the augmented reality panther, points out that only 1% of all NBA fans will ever attend an NBA game in person. The remaining 99% are targets for an immersive, interactive and social experience that offers something new and different than being in-stadium - all from the comfort of their own couch.
This idea is echoed by executives at global brands like Pepsi. Todd Kaplan, Pepsi’s Vice President of Marketing recently said, “Consumers are really striving for these more tactile, IRL experiences, but you want to be safe.”
Big brands are financially leaning into these virtual fan experiences. This makes sense when you look at the exceptional social engagement statistics - The Famous Group’s virtual panther saw 46 times the average engagement of other posts. As ad spending recovers to match higher consumer spending, we’re going to see more sophisticated and personalized digital experiences.
Imagining the Future of Augmented Reality Fan Experiences
In short, we have a perfect storm of digital opportunity even as stadiums are back at full attendance. We can now create incredible augmented reality events that fulfill consumer demand for safety and deliver truly immersive experiences, all backed by corporate marketing budgets. We have the power to create a new world, and bring people together in it for a virtual fan experience unlike any other.
Now, we’re back in 2023. The Panthers game is over and you and your extended family are chatting during the halftime show of the Minnesota Vikings game. You’ve got a surprise for your dad. After you convince him to put on an AR headset, he’s amazed to see Randy Moss sitting in the easy chair next to him.
Moss then greets him by name and asks if he’s enjoying the game. Knowing your dad was a lifetime fan, you used a Cameo-style app to book a live virtual appearance with the legendary receiver. He and Moss relive some of his greatest catches, and your dad makes a virtual memory that will last forever.
Later that night, your kids are begging you to give up the TV and augmented reality headset so they can play video games. As you smile and hand over the AR headset, you silently launch a virtual Hot Wheels interactive inside the room. Your children’s mouths are agape as they watch virtual cars race around them - then they realize they can reshape the track in real-time.
Just when it seems this racing experience couldn’t get any better, their friends from out-of-state log in and challenge your kids to a virtual race. The video games are forgotten as your kids enjoy playing with an augmented reality brand experience, which seems like a huge improvement over the loud, annoying TV ads you grew up with.
Bringing the Future of Fan Experiences to the Present
All of these scenes are plausible in the not-so-distant future. What’s more, we could easily see virtual fan experiences rival and even surpass those inside the stadium, leading in-person fans to want to watch a virtual replay of a game they attended live.
By pushing the possibilities of augmented reality fandom, we can enable virtual, interactive, and interpersonal fan experiences that bring people together in ways that are both cutting edge and timeless. Augmented reality is here to help.