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What Augmented Reality Means for Sports Sponsorships

Watch a professional sports highlight clip on Instagram or YouTube these days, and there’s a good chance you’ll see something new: Augmented reality.

Maybe athletes will have video game-style identifiers or stats overlaid on them to make the action easier to follow. Maybe when a player hits a home run, the player magically turns into an emoji-styled animation. AR effects are a powerful addition to the traditional sports viewing experience.

But AR doesn’t just make sports more interesting to watch. AR sports experiences create new opportunities for media brands and a new frontier for advertising and sponsorships.

AR and Highlights
The current wave of sports AR largely exists in highlight reels and short clips instead of during real-time games. Although both ESPN and Fox Sports’ apps have added AR effects to live broadcasts, AR has largely been deployed in short-form content.  

Highlight reels, which first gained prominence during the early years of ESPN’s Sportscenter, are perfect for the age of smartphones and mobile data consumption. They offer quick, easily digestible sports bites with many opportunities for AR integration.

Some major sports leagues worldwide have embraced highlight reels and social media distribution from outside their own social accounts. As NBA commissioner Adam Silver put it in strategy+business, "We promote the posting of our highlights. The highlights are identified through YouTube's software, and when ads are sold against them, we share in the revenue. We analogize our strategy to snacks versus meals. If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they're still going to want to eat meals — which are our games.”

Sports highlights on social media and in dedicated mobile apps help grow audiences globally and increase engagement with current fans. These highlights also offer sponsors a variety of relatively low-risk and high-reward monetization opportunities. 

There are two kinds of augmented reality overlays currently seen in sports video. The first is pre-configured, automated AR-based around computer vision such as statistic or probability overlays on specific players. The second consists of manually added animations or effects overlaid on a highlight reel or game clip for dramatic or humorous effect.

While pre-configured, automated AR does not require much human intervention, manual animations require a significant human and worktime investment. Highlight reels are currently preferred for both varieties of AR because the technology is currently in its early phase and broadcasters are looking for the right mix to entertain and attract viewers, without disrupting the viewing experience.

Tech and Highlight Reels
One of the biggest professional sports teams to embrace AR is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers launched Clippers CourtVision in conjunction with Fox Sports and startup Second Spectrum in 2018. CourtVision, which is currently in beta, allows viewers to watch games from multiple cameras and audio feeds enriched with AR overlays. The result is an interactive experience where viewers are able to customize how they watch matches and what AR overlays (stats, probabilities, etc.) players receive.

Second Spectrum, which is backed by Clippers chairman and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, works with ESPN in addition to Fox Sports. Other Second Spectrum clients reportedly include two-thirds of NBA teams. The company has focused on enhancing live broadcasts but has an opportunity to become part of a growing ecosystem of vendors experimenting with technology for generating and distributing pro sports highlight reels, including WSC Sports, Minute.ly, Grabyo/Opta Sports, Reely.ai, Pixellot.tv, PLAAY, Athenascope, Hudl, and even IBM’s Watson division. These firms largely specialize in automated video highlight clip generation and distribution, which presents new opportunities for deploying automated AR in the future.

Advertising and Sports AR
While AR for pro sports is still in its early years, the technology offers huge opportunities for advertisers and corporate sponsors. This builds on existing AR advertising integrations such as Snap’s tools for AR advertising and YouTube’s new offerings for AR advertisements.

More specific offerings already exist for sports. Bleacher Report’s AR-enabled Instagram highlights, for instance, have been sponsored by Wells Fargo in the past. However, this is just the beginning.

For live sports broadcasts, networks like Fox and ESPN–as well as others–have an opportunity to embrace incremental monetization by selling sponsorships against different types of AR. Logos or blurbs for sponsors could be shown on-screen, or even integrated into graphics.

For instance, automakers or wealth management firms could sponsor performance-oriented AR features. Insurance companies could sponsor AR popups based around the probability of in-game events happening. Slam dunks could be sponsored by brands like Red Bull or Dunkin’.

Similar opportunities also exist for AR overlays inside apps, or embedded inside social media services such as Snap or Instagram. Content creators can also apply their own computer vision-assisted animations post broadcast, which can lead to additional incremental monetization elements. Because sports AR is so new, both brands and advertising firms will have to experiment with multiple approaches before finding formulae for sponsorship monetization which consistently works.

Obstacles to AR Sponsorship
One of the biggest challenges AR sponsorship monetization faces is coordination between broadcasters, league and team to align respective assets/rights. Major professional sports leagues have complicated broadcast rights involving multiple stakeholders; this serves as a contributing factor to the limited adoption of AR so far. However, the potential of AR advertising means these issues will likely be resolved soon.

The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, for instance, took several years to develop formal protocols around advertising in mobile apps with game highlights or team-related content. A similar experimentation period can be expected for AR as leagues work to prevent any potential clashes between current sponsors and new, AR-only sponsors.

Technical issues are another challenge potential sponsors may face. At this point, sponsorships are likely to be as much proof-of-concept as anything else. As such, they can easily act in unexpected ways or even create a disruptive viewing experience. Sponsor logos in AR could obstruct the view of the action, for example, or simply distract viewers from it. When shown in mobile applications, they could potentially slow loading time and create technical glitches.

Over the next few years, AR sponsorship is likely to primarily appear in highlight clips, mobile apps, and live broadcasts viewed online. These integrations will serve as stepping stones to AR sponsorship in live broadcasted games. As early adopter brands and other stakeholders experiment to find the right approaches for the medium, everyone in the sports sponsorship ecosystem should begin looking to AR as an exciting new frontier for advertising and content monetization.

Illustrations by Chiara Vercesi