From the recent Rugby World Cup to the current Premier League season, the most popular sports are attracting record sums of commercial investment to exploit the unprecedented reach of those brands. It's little wonder then that brands are investing their efforts in creating new high tech experiences for such a huge audience.
The Rugby World Cup used a number of virtual reality (VR) technology experiences to engage with fans such as O2's Wear the Rose ad which had an Oculus Rift version of the ad developed into VR so fans could experience clips of the live game in the most immersive way possible. Insurance firm and sponsors of tournament winners New Zealand AIG turned to virtual reality to bring fans up close to the team's famous pre-match dance, allowing them to stand shoulder to shoulder with the All Blacks - or the opposing team.
As well as VR, the Rugby World Cup has used augmented reality in its ticketing services. Each of the 2.4 million tickets sold for the 2015 Rugby World Cup features augmented reality content designed to bring the experience alive for fans. Using the Blippar image recognition app, fans can scan their tickets to reveal exclusive behind-the-scenes material hosted and delivered by Rugby World Cup 2003 winners Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Will Greenwood.
One of the more prominent ways VR is being used by sports marketers is to give fans 360-degree views of moments that have previously been kept off limits; Manchester City’s introduction of a 360-degree camera in the Etihad Stadium’s tunnel gives fans from around the world the opportunity to see behind the scenes footage of the players during match days. Earlier this year, the club also announced a new match day app for Android smartwatches which gives fans access to match stats and commentary during games.
O2's head of sports sponsorship, Gareth Griffiths, recognises that modern day VR is still very much in its infancy but maintains as the tech becomes more widely available to consumers there will be more "opportunities to create a wider range of downloadable content and experiences both on and off the pitch".
For the time being however, Griffiths said the ROI challenge with a VR experience is getting it out to a large audience by being "proactive and putting the headset and technology into consumers' hands". He added that "our Wear the Rose Tour throughout 2015 did exactly that, first at Twickenham during the Six Nations we then went out across England, primarily to local rugby clubs, with our custom built trailer so fans could enjoy stepping in to an England Rugby training session virtual world".
The Wear the Rose VR ad has proven successful in terms of numbers with over 35,000 fans trying out the experience so far. Griffiths believes this form of advertising will continue to grow through sports because "VR can provide a truly unique insight into the world of elite sports by allowing fans to be immersed in something that they might not normally get the chance to experience".
It's a thought not lost on Omaid Hiwaizi, president of global marketing at Blippar, who strongly believes that VR advertising is the future of advertsing. He added: "It’s not really a choice for brands – I think people will quickly reject brands that don’t act a bit like an excited or knowledgeable fan in the next seat – albeit one who knows that they have to shut up at certain points in the game".
Hiwaizi sees sports as the best avenue for VR advertising because "the passion and tribalism of sports fans isn’t something that’s replicated in other industries" and so it provides the "context for new types of digital technology to gain scale".
He believes that this will change the entire advertising industry due to the level of expectation that consumers will comes to develop.
"If fans can engage and communicate via VR in sport every Saturday, it will make a lot of other interactions feel two-dimensional and static, and this kind of experience inflation can only be good for driving innovation across cultural experience and brand activation."
The US is perhaps at the forefront of engaging high tech campaigns directed at sport fans. Mountain Dew recently created a VR experience for racing fans with a 360-degree camera ad putting fans in the car with Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr as he hits speeds of up to 100 mph. The PepsiCo-owned brand has been an advocate of VR technology in its campaigns for some time and has used it across various sports including snowboarding and skate boarding.
Like its sports drinks rivals, Gatorade has also worked to capture the imagination of fans with a VR 360 degree ad from the point of view of Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper. Meanwhile, Nike has given some of its latest ads the high tech treatment by putting footy fans in the Hypervenom boots of Brazilian striker Neymar as he skips past defends during a VR game.
Paul McCormick, associate director at Pitch, said the current innovations were “just the beginning”. He predicted that the trend would continue to develop through sports advertising, in large part, because the emotions of sports fans have “given brands involved in the sports industry the opportunity to push the boundaries through engaging content”.
“Sports evoke feelings of passion and excitement and fans crave more information on their heroes”, said McCormick.
He added that the common theme was that “people want to feel closer to the action. The integration of technology such as Go-pro or digital tools like Periscope has allowed fans to feel the adrenaline of their heroes”.
While the tech is still in its infancy, McCormick says the acceleration of innovation in this area alongside the proliferation of smartphones and tablets as consumers’ primary devices for watching videos “demonstrates the potential to deliver lean-in experiences and immerse them further into the brand”.
It may sound like the latest passing trend in marketing but the investments from Google and Facebook's Oculus indicate that it is more than a passing trend.
360-degree camera tech “is a fast emerging technology that will be here to say” says Samuel Freeman, creative director at Brandwave Marketing. He believes that the level of immersion which the tech has not only looks great but also keeps the “viewer engaged and stimulated for a much longer period of time”, crucially giving advertisers more time to win over consumers.
Freeman added that the extent to which tech like VR has been embraced by the biggest companies in the world means, “as with any emerging camera technology it soon becomes affordable and developed for the consumer market” which will eventually help cement it as a platform for advertising.
Solomon Rodgers is the managing director at Rewind, a VR production agency, which is working with an increasing number of brands such as Red Bull, Sky and Samsung to create VR advertising. The agency even worked with O2 to make the Wear the Rose England rugby ad into a VR experience for fans.
"With Red Bull we are seeing a huge up take in this new medium in the form of 360 video's for YouTube and Facebook, to their own bespoke VR content for Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony Morpheus" says Solomon.
Rodgers sees the experiences as having a more meaningful impact, giving the "the user an opportunity to interact, experience and get closer to a brand's products, values and, in the case of Red Bull, its athletes".
As the industry moves forward Rodgers believes that VR will be the main form of consuming digital content and so advertising must "engage with them directly" and sports is the most immersive means of doing so. It will benefit the brands because "these experiences when viewed in a VR headset create deeper connections, and form stronger memories and associations towards the content.
"It is largely prominent within the sports industry as 360 video allows audiences to get closer to the action than ever before, almost as if they were there seated in the cockpit, in the locker room, in the ring" continues Rodgers.
Sports have proven to be the most popular platform for brands to integrate high tech experiences as a means of increasing engagement. The desire to get closer to the action has always been there, from player cams to more camera views, and so the advancement in technology, particularly VR, is providing even richer opportunities for brands to engage with fans in meaningful way. This looks set to increase as VR gradually rolls out to consumers - Oculus Rift is scheduled for release early next year - who will be able to more readily access the immersive experiences brands are creating.