Bleeding money but gaining advertisers: Sphere, the story so far
Despite a $98.4mn operating loss in the last fiscal quarter and the sudden departure of its parent company’s CFO, the Sphere is continuing to attract brands eager to advertise on the world’s largest screen.
The Sphere in the Venetian Resort, which cost around $2.3bn to construct, opened to the public on September 29. / Adobe Stock
Since it opened to the public in late September, the Sphere in the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas – colloquially referred to simply as “Sphere” – has become an iconic fixture of the Las Vegas strip and a viral hit on social media. And no wonder: towering to a height of more than 350 feet and coated in well over one million hockey puck-shaped LED lights, Sphere glows in the Nevada desert like a psychedelic Death Star that’s fallen to Earth.
The outer surface of Sphere, nicknamed the Exosphere, has become a new frontier for digital out-of-home (OOH) advertising. Judging from the many, many videos that have been captured of Sphere from the outside, it looks unignorable; good luck walking through Vegas and not catching the occasional glimpse of this $2.3bn ball of light. The human eye seems to be naturally drawn to screens, and Sphere is (literally) the largest screen of them all.
Brands have been quick to recognize Sphere's potential marketing value. (seriously, this thing makes Times Square in New York City look quaint by comparison.) But reaching that many eyeballs does not come cheaply: airing an ad for a single day on Sphere costs a brand $450,000, according to a leaked pitch deck that was shared on X.
In the month and a half or so since Sphere was opened – kicking off with a 36-day residency with legendary rock band U2 – a handful of big-name and deep-pocketed brands have advertised on this gargantuan digital billboard. Each has made a unique attempt to get creative with the venue’s unique, oblate shape.
Standout Sphere advertisers so far:
YouTube got there first, turning the Exosphere into giant football helmets in promotion of the brand’s NFL Sunday Ticket package.
Next up was the NBA, which turned it into (you guessed it) an enormous basketball.
Microsoft launched an Xbox campaign on the Exosphere in which huge (have we mentioned that this screen is huge?) twin “X” logos circle around the structure, making it look a bit like the green, glowing egg in the original Alien movie poster. The campaign was dubbed the “Xsphere” in a tweet by Xbox communications director Jeff Rubenstein.
Just one day after Microsoft’s Sphere campaign, rival Sony illuminated the Exosphere with a campaign for Spider Man 2, a new game for PlayStation 5.
Software firm Autodesk teamed up with Marvel Studios earlier this month to demonstrate the company’s role in role in filmmaking and visual effects. It claimed The Drum’s Ad of the Day.
Coca-Cola has taken Sphere advertising one step further by incorporating another flashy tech trend: generative AI. Earlier this week, the beverage giant unveiled its “Destination Y3000” campaign on the Sphere, featuring AI-generated images envisioning what the year 3,000 might look like. According to the AI model that was used in the campaign, the dawn of the next millennium will be characterized by cotton candy-colored architecture, flying cars and some kind of giant, rotating coin.
The campaign was an extension of Coke's Y3000 Zero Sugar soda, which according to the brand’s website “was co-created with artificial intelligence to help bring the flavor of tomorrow to Coke fans.”
According to Coca-Cola’s senior director of global strategy Oana Vlad, the “Exosphere was the perfect canvas to give fans around the world a glimpse of what a future world could look like, powered by AI technology.”
@cocacola It's happening! The iconic @spherevegas is transforming into a portal to the Year 3000! Don't miss out. ✨ #CocaColaCreations ♬ original sound - Coca-Cola
It was only a matter of time before a brand merged advertising on Sphere with AI. Interest in the latter has been white hot throughout the marketing industry since the release of ChatGPT close to one year ago, and brands of various stripes have been searching high and low for new ways of leveraging the technology. Doritos, for example, recently launched an effort to silence the crunch of their chips using AI so that gamers could more easily maintain their focus.
Heineken, the title sponsor of this weekend’s Formula 1 Grand Prix race in Vegas, seized the opportunity by transforming the Exosphere into a rotating disco ball which freezes over, turning into a sort of igloo which collapses in on itself, revealing a can of Heineken Silver – a light beer which the brand launched in the US earlier this year.
Today, luxury car brand Aston Martin unveiled an Exosphere campaign in anticipation of the upcoming Las Vegas F1 Grand Prix. Two of the brand’s models will be showcased on the enormous screen. Then, seeking to capture and convey the sensorial experience of being behind the wheel of an Aston Martin, the Exosphere will be aglow with an animated rendering of biometric data captured from a driver’s pupils, heartbeat and synapses. Bystanders may not be totally clear about what they’re seeing on the Exosphere during the car brand’s new campaign, but that’s probably beside the point; the goal of the campaign – as with everything that’s been broadcast on Sphere to date – seems to be much more about creating visually striking and memorable imagery.
“Beyond the showcasing of the products, we have translated this [biometric] data into graphic animations to convey the essence of our brand and the pure emotion of the driving experience of an Aston Martin,” Renato Bisignani, Aston Martin’s head of global marketing and communications, told The Drum in an interview.
Aston Martin’s Sphere campaign will be a part of a broader marketing activation which the brand will deploy across the F1 race weekend. This broader effort, says Bisignani, represents “a multimillion-dollar investment.” He describes the brand’s Sphere campaign as “the largest display of a car that’s ever been [seen] on digital media and … the world’s most sophisticated car advertisement.”
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Trouble in paradise?
The steady interest from brands in advertising on Sphere belies the fact that its parent company, Sphere Entertainment Co., seems to be going through some kind of internal financial turmoil.
On November 3, the company filed a report with the SEC stating that its chief financial officer, Gautam Ranji, had resigned. Ranji’s departure was “not a result of any disagreement with the company’s independent auditors or any member of management on any matter of accounting principles or practices, financial statement disclosure or internal controls,” the company claimed in the filing.
Citing an anonymous source, The New York Post reported four days later that Ranji may in fact have resigned after company chief exec James Dolan – whom the Post described as “bombastic” – screamed at him during a company meeting.
Then, on November 8, Sphere Entertainment reported an operating loss of $98.4mn for the most recent fiscal quarter (ended September 30). Dolan tried to reassure his financial backers: “We are building positive momentum across Sphere and remain confident that we are well positioned to drive long-term value for shareholders,” he stated in a press release.
Sphere Entertainment has not responded to a request for comment.
Despite Sphere Entertainment’s apparently tumultuous financial situation, Lina Maggi, VP of partnerships and head of OOH at BCN Visuals – the agency that developed the Sphere campaigns for both Heineken and Microsoft – says that interest from brands remains high.
“For the Sphere, we continue to get requests from top clients that want to make an impact on the biggest screen in the world,” she says. “We are seeing that there is still tons of excitement about this screen and it has not slowed ... every client we get wants to do it bigger than the last, and we love pushing the boundaries of what’s possible from a creative standpoint.”
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