Sport is finding innovative ways to cash in on the $3bn Pokémon Go phenomenon. Greg Pitcher investigates the commercial opportunities in augmented reality.
Picture red and blue teams honing their skills and then battling it out in major arenas for big prizes. It sounds like standard fare for the sports industry.
This is not the Merseyside or Manchester football derby, or the Detroit Lions against the San Francisco 49ers in American football’s NFL, though. It is just one vision of the future of Pokémon Go.
With Michael Vernon Page celebrating a mixed martial arts Bellator knockout with a move from the game, Nick Kyrgios saying he had been playing it more than tennis and Cricket ACT tweeting pictures of a Poliwag close to the Manuka Oval in Canberra, Pokémon Go has been popping up all over the sporting world in the few weeks since its release.
However, experts believe the story may just have begun for the industry’s involvement with both the craze and the technology behind it.
“It’s important for clubs to embrace Pokémon Go rather than try to legislate against it,” says Rob Williams, director of technology and innovation at the NEC Group, which hosts indoor sports, such as basketball and badminton at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham in the UK, as well as sells tickets for various sporting events through its Ticket Factory business.
“By bringing Pokémon Go fans into the stadium, you are attracting a wide demographic, including a band of people in their 30s who remember the original franchise.”
A minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls, raised $3,000 for charity – and quite possibly created some valuable new supporters – through one such initiative.
“The weekend after the phenomenon really started in the US, people were tweeting and posting on Facebook about Pokémon at the stadium during our game,” director of communications Matt Sutor says.
“We decided on the Sunday evening to open the stadium up, as fans don’t usually get that access. We sent out a press release on Monday and the event was on Tuesday morning.” Some 600 people turned up for the event despite the short notice and the thermometer pushing up to 95 degrees. The stadium is in the middle of a technology industry district, meaning it was a prime location for attracting digital enthusiasts at short notice.
“We thought we might make some new fans, who might not have come out otherwise, but who would see we have our finger on the pulse and that we engage with the community,” Sutor says. “They might come back for a game.”
More clubs could be using their arenas in innovative ways, according to Williams.
“There are three different coloured teams on Pokémon Go and it is actually quite a deep strategic game,” he says. “It would be great if sports sides gave Pokémon coaching to people who are playing as one of the three teams in the game. They could get people into the stadium, then tell them about its history and look to engage them.”
— Cricket ACT (@CricketACT) July 11, 2016
Mark McCulloch, founder and chief executive of marketing agency We Are Spectacular, agrees there is a big opportunity for sport businesses.
“Pokémon Go is where people’s attention is at the moment and it makes sense to get your messages where people’s eyeballs are,” he says.
“Also, if you enable people to carry on with their interest in sport – people like doing four things at once these days – that shows you understand them.
“Can you benefit from where the Pokémon are in the stadium? Could you reward people for catching an amount of Pokémon?”
Paul McCormick, senior account director at sports marketing agency Pitch, has similar ideas, particularly for clubs such as those in England’s second-tier football Championship which are “focused on being family clubs and any way of using social currency.”
He adds: “I would say that if someone did a deal with [Pokémon Go producer] Niantic, they could do speed and agility training sessions to catch Pokémon. Then they could let people earn points to get into games.
“Players have been talking about their fascination with Pokémon and clubs could get involved, working with stars to talk authentically about it. This opens up sponsorship deals, as you are connecting credibly with 16 to 30-year-olds.”
According to Sutor, the opportunities to engage with the public through Pokémon Go are too promising to ignore.
“If your fans are into pop culture and use Pokémon Go in your stadium, then it’s foolish not to get involved,” he says. “Anything you can do to enhance your brand through this phenomenon is something to take advantage of.”
Williams says the possibilities for sports teams will grow as Niantic pushes out further stages of the game, adding that only about a quarter of the game has been released so far.
He says: “The next thing will be trading of characters collected and what better place to swap than at full stadiums? You could have a dedicated area in the main concourse.
“After that there will be raids, which could be huge Pokémon battling teams of people – Niantic needs spaces for this to happen. Imagine filling stadiums without requiring sports events.”
So Pokémon Go could have a real impact on the way sport businesses use their real estate and market themselves. But even this is just the tip of the iceberg.
McCulloch says that the craze shows that augmented reality has arrived as a tool for engaging with the public, regardless of age. “Now everyone from 12-year-olds to grannies know what it’s about and that is the big opportunity,” he says. McCormick agrees that it is a significant moment for the industry. “Pokémon Go shows the potential of augmented reality,” he says.
“Forward-looking sports teams have to be looking at it. If you are a Manchester United fan, then could you have the opportunity to see where on the pitch famous goals were scored? Could you see George Best talking about when he first arrived at Old Trafford? How do you use these experiences to connect with the fans who can’t get to games? Could you do virtual tours on a club app, but with challenges included?”
The key is to use the technology to enrich the sporting experience, rather than to see it as a threat.
“For all sports it is a massive focus to bring in a younger audience,” McCormick says. “Could you do it using gamified experiences?
“Clubs are very savvy in looking for long-term audiences; they are looking at the generation after millennials, which is very mobile-focused. They won’t want to read programme notes or be given a rattle; they want to do something cool on their phone at a game.”
Williams says that augmented reality could be used to change the way people consume sport both at home and in the stadium. “There is a huge fan engagement angle to this technology,” he says.
“In cricket or baseball the learning curve can be steep, so imagine a real-time overlay with a 100ft tall player explaining why he made a certain play. Manchester United could have players from the past who walk up to people’s seats and talk to them about the game.”
TV companies will also benefit, Williams says. “In 10 years we will watch sport very differently,” he adds. “Augmented reality will be a big piece of that.”
Meanwhile, sports brands could use Pokémon Go’s hide-and-seek theme for their own purposes, within their own apps or through deals with Niantic.
McCormick says: “Pokémon Go is just an old-fashioned treasure hunt, but on your mobile. If an NFL club did something similar with its own app, it could incentivise fans with tickets or a chance to speak to a new signing.”
Sports clothing companies could take advantage of the technology as well.
“A dream scenario would be for a sportswear brand to launch a football boot and then put virtual boots into the real world so people collect them and get something exclusive,” says McCormick. “It could become a global campaign.
“Whatever you choose to hide and locate, it has to be something people care about. It becomes a social challenge, which people love – look at the ice bucket challenge.”
He adds that the first aim of using augmented reality like this in sport should be to build a community of people. “Then you interact with them and bring to sports new audiences that are hard to get,” he explains.
This could be a huge tool in the battle for new customers. European football teams are competing fiercely for fans in Asia, while the NFL has its sights set on European supporters.
“Innovations in connecting with fans are important for winning support in new territories,” McCormick says. “Bring fans into your experience through their passions.
“How do you give fans something different to connect with them and make you stand out from your competitors? We will see clubs trying to do things a bit more. There is the potential to go massive.”