Overlapping trends in camera tech, fan engagement strategies and blockchain proliferation are pushing teams to explore the possibility of one day hosting more fans in virtual digs than they could ever invite into their concrete and steel structures.
And rather than doing deals with mayors or governors, teams are scoping out partnerships with tech newcomers as well as digital behemoths. Soon enough, online attendance could be reality.
Global TV deals and social platforms have helped the world’s biggest franchises develop massive fanbases. Man City, for instance, had over 75 million social-media followers, according to a recent accounting. But they can only feel so connected by interacting on Instagram.
“We know that fandom actually is very much nurtured by fans meeting each other,” City Football Group CMO Nuria Tarré said. “Finding a platform in a virtual online world where fans can create these new communities is definitely a primary objective.” Virtual worlds could also attract young fans who haven’t developed live event attendance habits.
Man City’s metaverse plans began taking shape in the middle of last year, when Sony’s Japan-based research and development team reached out. Sony, in the process of developing virtual reality for its PlayStation and Sony Entertainment platforms, was looking to build out its sports applications and offered up a subsidiary, Hawk-Eye, to digitally map Etihad Stadium for virtual reconstruction. Hawk-Eye’s player-tracking and computer-vision products are expected to play a role in bringing game action in real time to the virtual world.
New camera developments have also driven digital experimentation stateside. In Brooklyn, the NBA’s Nets installed 100 new Canon cameras that capture plays in three dimensions so TV producers can “place” cameras anywhere around—or on—the court. “We think it’s going to transform the way our fans experience the game of basketball,” Nets parent company BSE Global CEO John Abbamondi told Sportico in January. The tech is now the anchor of an evolving “Netaverse” concept.
Tarré said Man City’s goal is to make the Etihad more accessible. “It’ll be a way to bring fans that will never have the opportunity to come to experience what it looks like, and also to explore parts of the stadium you would normally not see.” One day, she said, “We would love to test how it feels to experience the game within that metaverse.” Currently, real world media rights limitations stand in the way. Reality bites.
The club, however, could find new ways to spotlight archival footage under its control and test both nostalgic demand and burgeoning technology. Virtual reality experiences are likely at some point, Tarré said, but the goal is more to make the virtual world accessible via smartphone for fans around the physical globe. Partner brands are likely to have a place in the eEtihad as well.
In April, MLB’s Atlanta Braves will introduce their own browser-based home, which they’ve dubbed Digital Truist Park. Built using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine (which powers online worlds like Fortnite), the park will host exclusive content, meet-and-greets, fan interaction and contests.
“We believe we are launching a venue, much like we did when we built Truist Park and The Battery,” Braves SVP, marketing and content Adam Zimmerman said recently.
While teams begin building their own virtual experiences, existing online worlds are increasingly courting sports properties. Team logos (including Man City’s) are already common among Fortnite avatars following a series of tie-ups, but that’s just the beginning.
Entire leagues have bought into the need for a home in the metaverse by partnering with GreenPark Sports, which has built a virtual universe for fans of the NBA, La Liga, League of Legends and, most recently, MLS. “There’s a lot more of a lean-in over the last year,” GreenPark chief strategy officer Tony Grillo said.
While GreenPark started from the ground up with its digital world, working sports motifs into a new environment, Grillo said it makes sense for teams to start by recreating their existing spaces online. “You don’t want to forget the lore of what you have that is so valuable,” he said. “That said, you wouldn’t be doing the virtual opportunities justice if you didn’t take it a level deeper, right?”
Such opportunities, Grillo said, would include something that “maybe doesn’t exist or couldn’t exist in real life, but can exist in a virtual world.”
Meta’s Horizons Venues platform has long played host to NBA games, and more recently aired an Overtime Elite dunk contest. Decentraland, a virtual reality platform built on the Ethereum blockchain, is the site of Virtually Human Studios’ ZED HQ, and more teams may soon join it.
“We are in contact with several entrepreneurs who are in talks with clubs to build their headquarters in the metaverse,” said Alejandro De Grazia, head of movies and entertainment at Decentraland.
Over time, Grillo said more teams and leagues will embrace blockchain technology as the backbone of virtual economies in their digital venues. “That’s very much where we feel like everything is going.”