For decades, how we experience sports as a fan has felt like a binary: Either you’re there watching live, or you’re not. And even with television pixel counts climbing into the stratosphere, the dividing line between live and digital has always been as clear as a foul pole or the 50-yard line.
Then the pandemic hit, and it transformed our relationship with sports — and technology — forever. Fans didn’t have a choice but to watch their favorite teams on a screen, which allowed Verizon and its partners like iX.co, a digital media company, to explore novel viewing experiences driven by technologies like Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband and virtual and augmented reality. When athletes eventually went back to the courts, fields, and tracks, the viewing experience had been reimagined.
“The pandemic has reinforced the need to develop both in-stadium as well as virtual experiences for sports fans across the country,” says Eric Nagy, director of technology and sports partnerships at Verizon. “Most fans can’t attend games in person, and as a result they are even hungrier for ways to engage with their favorite teams and players. As 5G network deployment matures over the next few years, fans will be able to leverage new immersive technologies that bring them closer to the game in a way they’ve never experienced before.”
Live from wherever you are
Even though some professional leagues have started to let fans trickle back into the stands, the majority of sporting events have to be watched through a screen for the time being. That’s presented a unique challenge for pro teams that use in-stadium promotions and marketing to create lasting bonds between fan and club. Those connections now have to be made wherever fans find themselves which, due to our current global health crisis, is likely at home.
“When you’re focused on businesses that depend on audiences and live events like sports, Covid has been pretty disruptive,” says David Nugent, chief commercial officer of iX.co. Nugent’s company has worked with several major sports leagues to provide next-generation fan experiences over the years, but the global pandemic forced them to reorient their perspective to cater to a transformed market. “When you can’t have fans in the audience, the way that you engage primarily with them is in digital, and we’ve been asked to explore new ways to create meaningful relationships.”
The team at iX.co is attempting to build those experiences by leveraging technology like like AR/VR. They’ve created AR experiences for powerhouse soccer teams like Bayern Munich and organizations like NASCAR that have provided something novel and engaging for audiences and deepened the relationship between teams and fans. For NASCAR, iX.co let people choose their favorite driver and car on the mobile app and do digital burnouts that would leave AR-fabricated skid marks in their living room or backyard. And because fans were using NASCAR’s official app, the organization was able to get a better idea of user preferences to feed even more personalized experiences. Verizon also has teamed up with INDYCAR to bring its 5G Ultra Wideband network to the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will enable new opportunities for a more engaging fan experience.
One of the trends that Nugent is seeing is in a burgeoning desire — and expectation — among remote viewers for truly immersive digital experiences that could be made way better through technology like Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband. Mobile experiences have become a crucial differentiator for teams attempting to deal with this new reality, and those interactions depend on speed, latency, and bandwidth: three benefits that Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband provides. Next-generation connectivity can open the door for technology like VR and AR to level up the sporting world at a time when fans are looking to technology to augment their viewing experiences. “If a fan can’t interact with their team in the stadium anymore, then they’re going to look for ways to do that on their phone,” says Nugent. “And that’s where the 5G conversation comes in. It’s about technology that can power experiences from wherever a fan is.”
Going overtime for fans
More immersive types of digital experiences undoubtedly will become part of the in-stadium experience when live events return, too. For teams looking to cultivate lasting relationships with fans, data is crucial, as it drives personalized interactions for fans who want deeper relationships with their favorite clubs. Recognizing the importance of connectivity in the stands, Verizon has rolled out its 5G Ultra Wideband at 43 stadiums and arenas across the country. “All these technological trends are heading towards hyper-personalization for the individual fan,” says Nugent.
Fans will be able to hold their phone up to see everything from live stat analysis to which concession line is the shortest to where the nearest restroom is. “Your phone ends up giving you access to this ‘metaverse’ experience,” says Nugent, referring conceptually to the next iteration of the internet, where physical space can converge with virtual space. “We feel very strongly that AR is going to be a transformative technology for a lot of our clients.”
Augmented reality depends on low latency, high-speed connectivity like that provided by Verizon Ultra Wideband. “I think we’re limited today because the connectivity and bandwidth in venues is good but not to the point where it can power immersive second-screen experiences,” says Verizon’s Nagy, referring to fans using their phones as a way to augment their live viewing experience. “When you look at the amount of throughput 5G networks can provide, we’re going down a path where we’re going to be able to give fans incredible mobile experiences no matter where they are.”
Nugent points to a 5G-enabled project that iX.co worked on with Verizon at the end of the 2019-2020 pro football season where fans with Verizon 5G-enabled phones could access multiple live camera angles on their devices throughout a game. “5G opens up a tremendous amount of potential where traditional cellular and WiFi connections struggle,” says Nugent.
Even though the majority of us can’t set foot inside a stadium to watch our favorite teams and athletes compete, tech from Verizon can transform the way we watch sports wherever we find ourselves. The sports viewing experience isn’t binary anymore. The lines between being there and watching from home are becoming more and more blurred by the day.
Learn more about Verizon 5G here.