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Volume 23 No. 28
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Virtual experience gets a real chance to stand out

Companies are exploring how to fill seats using technology, not just with cardboard cutouts, though nothing can replace real fans.
Photo: getty images

When any of the major U.S. pro sports leagues resume play, fans will more than likely be absent. That’s led broadcasters, properties, technology companies and consulting shops to come to terms with the new reality and strategize how to bring consumers even closer to the field of play.

“You have to focus on technologies that will enhance the viewing fan experience or enhance the experience for the athletes,” said Elizabeth Lindsey, president of brands and properties at talent representation and corporate marketing agency Wasserman. “Of course, we have to be creative in how we replicate as close to an experience as possible in what is an unprecedented situation.”

One company reimagining the connection between fans and sports itself is The Famous Group, a Culver City, Calif.-based fan experience and technology firm. Owner and partner Jon Slusser said he is in talks with almost every major sports league and television network about using mixed reality to virtually bring fans into venues in meaningful ways. What is being discussed involves visual components and audio elements for broadcast-based solutions, and also interaction between select fans and athletes for a premium experience. 

“When you see events that don’t have fans, you really understand what is missing,” Slusser said. “It’s an incredible realization of how important fans and that energy are to live events, and what makes live events special and gives it the energy, gravity, importance and life. … It’s really about how you can bring the fans into the arena and make them feel like they are really there — their voices, their faces, their presence.”

Virtual tickets could provide teams the ability to expand their fan base and produce new revenue streams. Large video screens near the tunnel entrance would allow players to interact with individuals in real-time, mimicking a virtual fan zone. And even larger screens inside the playing venue could also offer fans unique camera angles.

“These are the types of solutions that you’re going to see in the next few months,” Slusser said, adding that the concept could live beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team at Nexus Studios is also assessing how to make empty stadiums feel busier. “There just aren’t many technologies right now that make more sense than augmented reality to see the game from ways you’ve never seen it before,” said Luke Ritchie, head of XR and interactive arts at the Los Angeles-based animation and film company.

There are numerous paths to explore around audio capabilities for a fanless game, according to Michael Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations at Fox Sports. He said the technology and the know-how exists to pump crowd noise into either just the television broadcast for at-home viewers or also the stadium for players, coaches and staff in a nuanced fashion that accounts for game circumstances. He said someone would need to score the game, adding that “it wouldn’t just be crowd on, crowd off. It’s not a laugh track. There’s a lot of nuance in terms of what that crowd and how that crowd is reacting.” 

In order to make it more authentic, different sounds would need to come from different parts of the venue to mimic what the actual audience experience is like. A baseline murmur of the crowd also needs to exist. Davies said it would be a manual process, adding that Fox is engaged in discussions now on the audio concepts. 

Brandon Schneider, CRO for the Golden State Warriors, said that all of this technology is already emerging but that the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the pandemic will only accelerate its impact. Sara Zuckert, the NBA’s senior director of domestic programming and content strategy, echoed that sentiment, adding that she is aware of mixed reality-powered concepts involving virtually covering empty seating with digitalized fans, signage or even with an extension of the stadium’s architecture. 

“We’re having discussions about every idea right now,” Zuckert said, explaining that the league is engaged in concept-driven discussions with several technology companies about what will make sense for the NBA audience. “The most important thing for us is that it’s a good experience and feels like a genuine experience.”

Zuckert said interaction between players and fans is also important, and that the NBA is exploring possibilities to achieve that. The NBA is considering ways through audio and/or visual elements to allow fans to visually cheer for their team through online interaction. The players may be able to hear the cheering as well at times because it would be seen in venue and on the telecast.

There are also broadcast-based solutions that are geared toward the home viewer. In Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League, cardboard cutouts of fans are currently used in the stands. Davies said that a similar practice is under consideration in the Bundesliga. Fans would purchase the ability to send in their photo and have a cardboard cutout in the stands, so they can say they virtually attended the match.

“An empty stadium is something that I don’t think anyone likes to see whether or not we were in the post-COVID world or not,” Davies said. 

Using mixed reality, The Famous Group can put virtual fans into the seats to make the stands look packed. The complication is that from a distance, they look real, but as you move closer, the digital characters look odd. One of the ideas the company has talked to leagues about is not to implement a digitized crowd but instead, to cover up the seats with virtual signage. 

Another option being discussed is to make it appear as if those seats aren’t even there, Slusser said. He stressed that when sports return, likely in fanless venues initially, the home viewing audience will still see empty seats in venues. 

“I don’t think everyone can afford to cover up all the seats all the time [virtually],” he said. “It’s expensive. But every team and league will need a solution on how to bring fans into the stadium. … The most important thing is that the fan feels like they are there. If they feel like their voice, their presence and their face are in that venue, then you win. All the rest is icing.”