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Picture perfect | FanCam links spectators and sponsors through the ultimate crowd-selfie

  • FanCam takes super high-res images of crowds attending live events at sports stadiums 
  • Images are hosted on a custom-built, sponsor-branded website, the link to which is sent to groups of known supporters via email and social media by the rights-holder itself
  • FanCam cuts deals directly with clubs or sponsors, and fans are never charged for images

Tinus Le Roux has stepped inside from a braai – a traditional Afrikaans barbecue – being held to celebrate the sixth anniversary of his company opening its first office, in Cape Town.

Getting those keys in September 2011 was itself a measure of success beyond the initial ambitions of the FanCam founders. Eleven months earlier, in October 2010, “a bunch of South Africans jumped on a plane to the States” with a bright idea to transform sport sponsorship they didn’t think would last them beyond Christmas.

“We thought American companies would copy us and move past us within three months,” says Le Roux, chief executive of the company. “Seven years later, and we captured 40-odd baseball games alone last month.”

Focuses on the crowd

The company takes photographs during live events in sport stadiums. But rather than train its cameras on the action, it focuses on the crowd.

“The basic premise is that people like pictures of themselves,” says Le Roux.

It’s a simple idea, and one that anyone with a Facebook or Instagram account would struggle to argue with. Yet, seven years ago FanCam started to make a highly scalable business from it. “We specialised in 360-degree photography,” says Le Roux. “We saw gigapixel photography and thought that would be cool in a sporting environment.

“So we figured out how to capture and produce it quickly, took it to a rugby game and put it online. People streamed to it and from there we realised we had engagement.”

The next step was to work out how to make money from that groundswell of attention.

“If I have a picture of you at a game, you will have at least a mild interest in whether I caught a good angle,” says Le Roux. “You will have a look. If it’s shareable, then you’ll share it with your friends.

“We realised that sponsors are involved in sport to get access to a community; the right to speak to a fan base. They have limited opportunities to do that in a way that adds value.”

FanCam’s founders realised they had stumbled on something highly sought after – a way to link sponsors with fans’ hearts and minds. If people could get hold of high quality images of themselves with their best mates supporting their team, regardless of whether a sponsors’ logo happened to be on the frame, they would happily promote it.

Le Roux explains: “This product provides something that adds value, where the fan doesn’t mind sharing the branded content.”

Panoramic photographs

The technology behind FanCam has evolved significantly. It started with a photographer standing on the field and although this method is still used at times, the company has now installed remote-controlled rigs in places, including the big screen in the middle of the basketball court at Madison Square Garden, home of the NBA’s New York Knicks.

Taking panoramic photographs of sufficient quality to allow each individual in a huge arena to zoom in is a major technical challenge.

“It’s an advanced camera, with a rig, and you have to be extremely accurate in how you move it around – the computer manages that with a lot of logarithms,” says Le Roux.

Processing the super high-res images requires customised software and even purpose-built hardware.

“You can’t open our images on any computer you’ve ever seen. We have files 500GB large. You can’t even open some of them in Photoshop. We have custom-built computers to suit the software, which is also customised to be as efficient as possible.”

It used to take a full 24 hours to get the images online, but with technical advances the company can now publish photos taken at the start of Knicks games before the final buzzer. The images are hosted on a custom-built, sponsor-branded website, the link to which is sent to groups of known supporters via email and social media by the rights-holder itself – the club – before, in most cases, going viral.

“We have more people coming to a typical FanCam image than went to the game itself,” says Le Roux. “It’s people looking at their mates or seeing which celebrities are in the front seats at a Lakers game.” If someone tags themselves on the master image and shares it on Facebook, it becomes a sponsor-branded post. “You can’t get people to share a brand’s logo on their own feed like that unless you offer them competition prizes,” he explains.

So there’s clear value for fans and sponsors, but what’s in it for the club, which has to be onside to host the equipment and link all parties together? The answer lies mainly in the question.

“It is a good opportunity for the club to add value for their sponsors, which is their business,” says Le Roux. “Sponsors want something that allows them to engage with fans. It also improves the fan experience. Clubs often think their product is the game – and it just isn’t. It’s the community; having something to talk about over Sunday lunch with your family.”

There is one added bonus for clubs letting FanCam set up their expensive equipment in their arenas.

“Using these cameras, and artificial intelligence, we can tell clubs more about their fan base,” says Le Roux. “We don’t identify people but we identify demographics.”

So FanCam can tell a club that on weekday evenings they have, for example, an 80-per-cent male audience but on Sunday afternoons it’s 40-per-cent female.

“And that’s not a sample done with a clipboard; it’s a scan of 65,000 people. We can deliver information before a game starts so clubs can adjust their gameday content accordingly.”

Sharing process

FanCam cuts deals directly with clubs – covering all Boston Celtics games this season, for example – or with sponsors, such as Bud Light, for whom it covered 20 basketball games across five arenas. The clubs and sponsors then work out their own agreements, but the fans are never charged for access to images, with FanCam recognising the necessity of facilitating the sharing process.

“If I compare the attention I deliver to Bud Light – quantifiable, repeatable business that adds value – to the number of pictures I’d need to sell to individuals then I’d rather sell to sponsors,” says Le Roux.

The repeatable nature of the model is one that the company had not reckoned on when they started out.

“In the early days we did one big event to another – the Superbowl, Daytona 500. Then we realised it worked every day of the week. I think 90 per cent of the games we will do this year will be part of multi-year deals,” he adds.

The reasons that images from the same venue are shared online week after week are manifold, believes Le Roux. The make-up of the crowd changes significantly at each game; the mood of the contest varies; and, ultimately, as he said at the beginning, people like pictures of themselves.

“No-one says, ‘I posted a selfie before, so I won’t do it again’,” he says.

But does everyone really love their pictures being posted online? Are there any repercussions from those who would rather not be shown stuffing a hot dog in their mouth as their team loses or, perhaps, sitting with someone they shouldn’t be?

“We have captured 20 million fans and had four complaints,” says Le Roux.

“Three were security people who did not want their faces there, and another was a politician that wasn’t supposed to be at the game.

“Meanwhile, we have received thousands of complaints from people who were not in their seats when photos were taken, as they’d gone to buy a beer.”

Le Roux says there is no legal case to answer and fans are already at risk of being shown in newspaper images of the game and on TV coverage.

“There is no legal issue with taking photos in a public place. It is also explicitly stated on the tickets and we often announce when a picture is being taken. But anyone can let us know and if they don’t want their picture taken, we’ll remove them from the image,” he adds. Whatever reasons you may think of why such a straightforward idea shouldn’t be so effective, it’s hard to argue with the fact, as Le Roux says, that “it just works”.

Biggest events

FanCam has grown from three founders and a developer working out of a home office at the start of this decade to a total of 33 people working across the world and covering some of the biggest events on the planet.

It doesn’t even rely on the big events.

“We will do MLS games with 10,000 people in the crowd that will do better in engagement than some NFL games, as it’s reaching a tight-knit community,” Le Roux says.

“An empty big stadium will often do worse than a packed club game in a small town.”

While the US remains its main focus, FanCam is looking at doing more work in Europe, where it captured fans at the 2016 Uefa Champions League final in the San Siro stadium in Milan in conjunction with sponsor Unicredit.

“We mainly focus on the US due to the sheer scale of the industry there, but I’d like to be more active in Europe,” says Le Roux, before heading back to his braai.

“We are not actively running after European sites, but by the end of the year I think we will be.”

Will the lucrative English football market be a target? “We would be open to work in the Premier League,” he replies. “We can do business in quite a few places, but you go where you get the best return on your investment.”

EXTRA: Virtual tours open up prospect of unlimited match attendance 

Panoramic photography of sports stadiums is also being used commercially without fans in the shot.

Virtual tours allow people to preview arenas online before attending or deciding where to sit.

Jay Scott-Nicholls, director of panoramic photography specialists Aardvark 360, says the medium has undergone a major resurgence due to high-speed internet and the appetite for interactive content.

“In the world of sports, this presents a clear opportunity to give fans the chance to preview their seats in a way which faithfully replicates actually being there,” he says. “Increasingly, stadia are commissioning virtual tours where the visitor can choose to view the field from a selection of seating blocks.

“If the fan has a virtual reality (VR) headset, they can strap it on and get a taster.”

The future possibilities are potentially game-changing.

“As live streaming of 360-degree video achieves higher levels of resolution and VR headsets become a standard piece of kit for the home, there will be no reason to be limited to selling tickets based on the number of seats in the physical stadium,” says Scott-Nicholls.

“The event could be experienced by an unlimited number of people from anywhere in the world.”

This article features in SportBusiness International’s 2018 Fan XP report. Browse the sections of the report or download the full PDF document here.  

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