Why AR is the next big play for the sports industry

7 min read
Blog Author

Why AR is the next big play for the sports industry

Blog Author
7 min read
With the growth of smartphones, fans now want (and expect) immersive experiences both at home and in the stadium and it’s time for sports brands to deliver with AR. Discover some of the best ways sports teams can leverage AR for the 18/19 sports season.

Here’s the thing. 

The fan experience in the sports world is changing forever. Gone are the days of one-way, passive consumption on game days through a handful of channels. 

With our ever-increasing connection to our smartphones, fans now want (and expect) a personalized 1-2-1 experience that’s available to them 24-7, whether they’re at home, or in the stadium. 

AR offers teams, sponsors and event organizers the opportunity to turn their physical touchpoints into multimedia content channels that enable this delightful engagement.

With the new soccer season well underway and the NFL and NBA seasons nearly upon us, I wanted to share some of the best ways sports teams can bridge this gap, and use AR to harness the power of mobile for themselves, rather than pushing all the value to the major social media channels. This can drive everything from fan engagement and merch sales to data collection and app downloads.  



Using AR for the 18/19 sports season

A good way to think about planning an AR campaign is to work backward. First identify the crucial business problem you are trying to solve, then develop a campaign that uses your team and player content to engage with fans.  

When we receive briefs from sports teams these challenges usually fall into two categories: 

  1. Enhance the stadium experience using AR and drive commercial value
  2. Connect with fans (and learn more about them) from outside of the stadium

Let’s start with the stadium experience and the ways in which AR can be applied to make a fan’s journey from when they arrive to when they leave more engaging, immersive and memorable. 


1. Enhancing the stadium experience with AR

The stadium experience is the modern day amphitheater - a shrine to a team’s most celebrated players, trophies, and games. 

To capture this, AR is already being used to give fans short, snackable experiences to bring them closer to the game. You’re probably already familiar with many of the NFL franchises opting to use AR face paints within their native apps as well soccer teams during this year’s World Cup, adding small doses of in-the-moment fun around game time. 

AR should, and can, be used to create so much more though. Here are some examples of how the stadium experience can be enhanced with AR while leaving the fans to enjoy the match experience during gameplay.


Driving app downloads through AR-enabled gameday programmes

Many teams have put apps at the heart of their long-term fan engagement and sponsorship value strategy. Not only does AR in your app lead to greater downloads, it can also be used as a retention play, giving sports fans reasons to come back and continue interacting. 

In the US we’ve teamed up with major NFL franchises like the Minnesota Vikings to drive app downloads from their multiple physical touchpoints. Their gameday programmes are a great example of this. By embedding AR into their app, Vikings were able to use the thousands of programme sales across the season to drive downloads and long-term engagement. In turn, fans could use the Vikings app to scan the programmes to unlock interviews and gameday videos of their favorite players.


Minnesota Vikings AR-enabled gameday programmes.


Not only are these new moments of discovery more engaging and interactive, they’re also 100% accountable and measurable in real-time through Zappar’s custom-built analytics solution, ‘Zap-alytics’. Marketing departments have seen how fans are actively scanning the programmes while in the stadium as well as in the weeks after the match.

Through the programmes alone, Minnesota tracked a significant spike in app downloads. During the Week 1 home opener, app downloads were 58% higher than on normal game days. 

Using AR for more effective data capture

As sponsors are demanding more than just logos on jerseys, teams are looking for new ways to deliver value and connect sponsors with fans and potential customers. Building a deep (opted in) customer database is becoming a critical way to add value to sponsors.

In the UK’s Premier League, we’ve joined forces with Manchester City FC to help them engage with fans outside of the stadium. The objective was to improve the depth of their fan database and activate the many events and player appearances across the year. Harnessing the power of overseas markets such as South East Asia was a particular priority.

The team already created “player cards” to hand out at these events, but these analog flyers didn’t help achieve the data collection need. Through adding player interviews, match highlights, player selfies, and a competition, the team was able to drive huge levels of engagement, great social media shares and of course, the all important data capture of new fans to add their database. 


Augmented reality direct mail and match day programmes for Manchester City.


AR isn’t just a marketing and engagement opportunity either 

In addition to sponsorship, a core revenue stream for many teams is merchandise. Whether it’s helping fans visualize their favorite player’s jersey ahead of purchasing it or increasing sales with a value-add proposition post-purchase, AR should be playing an integral role in driving merch sales for sports teams inside and outside of the stadium. 

San Francisco 49ers have used AR to drive sales and margin of their limited edition merchandise in the team store. Using their smartphones and the 49ers app, fans could scan the AR-enabled souvenir cups, unlocking video highlights from the team’s Hall Of Fame.

With this kind of merchandise having a low perceived value, AR-enabled them to add value, cost effectively, to the products and charge a premium. 


San Franrisco 49ers AR Souvenir Cups.


In the NBA, the Sacramento Kings had a number of objectives they wanted to deliver:  launching their new jersey, promoting its 100% recycled credentials, driving sales and, most importantly, promoting their new kit sponsors, Nike, and Blue Diamond Almonds. 

By embedding AR tech in the Kings app, fans were able to personalize the new jersey and virtually photograph themselves with star players. Fans could also interact with Kings veteran Garrett Temple, who wore the new jersey for the first time and shared his thoughts on the team’s new on-court look. 

During the video introduction, Temple also name-checked the new sponsors, which added value to Nike’s and Blue Diamond Almonds’ brands. 


Sacramento Kings embed AR in their app to bring to life their new jersey.


It’s not only NBA teams that are seeing the value in AR, but players too. NBA All-Star Baron Davis mentioned when he met our US East Coast, VP of Business Development, Keith Curtin, that he is keeping a close eye on the development of AR 


"Augmented Reality will completely change content creation & distribution for sports & entertainment." 

- Baron Davis, NBA All-Star & TNT analyst



Keith takes Baron Davis through our recent 'Layered' study into the effects of AR on the brain. 


More ideas to turbo chARge your fan engagement

Sports teams are blessed with awesome content that fans want to access. This is a great head start when it comes to giving users a compelling reason to scan. Fans idolize their team’s star players and this can be used to great effect in stadiums, team museums and at retail stores. 

In conversations with many marketing teams, we regularly discuss stadium experiences. The common objective here is to encourage fans to arrive at the stadium early and explore the campus - the outcome being that the more time a fan spends on site, the more likely they are to spend on food or merchandise.

"Augmented reality is, literally, changing the game for live sports...legacy sports stadiums are being transformed into giant, interactive gaming consoles allowing fans to make the physical world around them, digitally interactive." 

- Ryan Montoya, CTO at Sacramento Kings

Imagine creating a scavenger hunt around the stadium that activates videos of current players or promotes the history of the team via it’s Hall Of Fame. Fans would be compelled to participate to learn more and complete the hunt.

With the fan’s propensity to participate, teams can decide how to capitalize on their engagement. This could include driving social media shares, leading fans to the retail store, collecting data, or offering coupons to food and beverage concessions.

For example, Zappar worked with Tilly’s (US skate retailer) to drive footfall and transactions during the back-to-school period. We created an AR in-store scavenger hunt which popular YouTuber Shonduras promoted heavily on his social channel. Fans then visited the Tilly’s bricks and mortar stores to participate in the hunt and collect discount coupons upon completion.


AR scavenger hunt for Tillys

According to Jon Kubo, Tilly’s Chief Digital Officer, the promotion drove “tens of thousands” of entrants to stores, who yielded an 80% coupon redemption rate, 99.6% opt-in for push and location tracking via the app, and a 23% hike in-app downloads during the event.


2. Bringing the stadium home with AR

Now, let’s look at bringing the fan experience back into the home. 

With the dissemination of millions of connected devices, sports teams are quickly recognizing that AR (and VR, too) can be used to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds, connecting the stadium experience with loyal fans across the world. 

For the thousands of fans living hundreds of miles away from their chosen team, clubs should be looking at virtual ways to capture the in-game experience and make it accessible to their fan base to create connection and community regardless of location. 


Mixed reality sports data visualisation for Kindred Futures.


Imagine simply putting on a headset and being able to watch the game from your living room as if you’re there in real life, or being taken on a 360 tour of your team’s stadium - immersing yourself in the trophy cabinet, locker room or pitch where all your favorite goals, touchdowns or 3-pointers were scored. 

This is all totally possible with the proliferation of MR and VR headsets (including our own affordable mixed reality kit, Zapbox), allowing sports teams to deliver rich and immersive experiences to fans that can’t make it to the game. 

For example, imagine I’m a Packers fan and as part of my club membership I get a branded cardboard headset sent to me in the post, enabling me to take a 360 tour of the stadium and watch every home game from the comfort of my sofa, but with the thrill of front row seats? Who wouldn’t sign up for a Packer's membership?! 

Using AR to increase club membership 

It goes without saying, a healthy club membership is the golden ticket to attracting new fans and nurturing loyalty amongst a club’s long-term fan base. 

Here at Zappar, we’re frequently approached by clubs and sports teams that surface the same problem: “how can we use AR to deliver more personal and engaging communication to our fan base?”

More often than not, the devil is in the detail. Having a calendar of content here is super important to keep fans engaged and maximize revenue potential throughout the year. 

Simply sending one-off messages to fans that aren’t thematically linked will nine times out of ten miss the mark. What we encourage teams to do instead is to start small, but think big. Think about delivering seasonal layers of content to fans that keep them engaged and keep them coming to games or take the leap to watch their first game.

The possibilities really are endless. Maybe you’ll want to trigger tracked AR experiences of players announcing new contract extensions, post-match interviews, bespoke highlights or even the latest team kit. 

Driving fans back to a teams website or eCommerce store is where the magic happens. When run alongside other campaigns AR can play the leading role in your teams' marketing strategy line-up. 


AR doesn’t have to be expensive 

With the functionality and ease-of-use that many of the AR content platforms afford nowadays, smaller teams can now get in on the action too. 

Savvy marketers at lower league teams and franchises are using AR content creation tools themselves (like our very own Zapworks) to add interactivity to their matchday programmes and fan mail, turning their owned media into an “always-on” media channel. 

Even smaller teams are sat on an immense amount of marketing assets like video and images, as well as fan-created content that can be repurposed to make their existing physical channels infinitely more valuable and meaningful. 


Leading cricket bat and sports equipment producers, Gray-Nicolls sat down with the Zappar team to chat AR + Zapworks.


Final thoughts 

Like most marketing strategies, AR should be implemented as part of a team’s wider commercial strategy. No single technology can win the game single-handedly in what is ultimately a team game. 

Our advice for planning any AR campaign is to start with your commercial objectives and then work backward to create an experience that will help deliver them.

To get you started, here are our 3 C’s for success, which distills our learnings from creating hundreds of AR experiences into three simple steps:



These are the hygiene factors around the users' physical context when scanning.  Do they have the time to take their phone out of their pocket and scan? Do they have access to a wifi or network connection? In this use case, your fans will likely either be at the stadium, in a retail environment, at an event or at home, so should have the time and the connectivity. We should also think about the context of when they will be scanning - we should probably let fans watch the game and only engage with them before or after.

Call To Action

This is critically important. We have to tell the user that AR content exists and how to access it. This needs to be communicated on the physical targets the fans scan as well as via any channels you have at your disposal (online, email, social, etc).  


This is the final and perhaps the most important aspect as the fans will only scan if they find the content entertaining, interesting or useful. The communication of this should be considered part of the important Call To Action. We need to clearly sell the reason to scan otherwise why should the fans want to get involved.  

Examples of augmented reality in sports 

Want to know what's possible with AR? Check out some of our favorite AR sports activations. 


If you’d like to discuss an AR project for your sports teams or brand, you can reach out to me on LinkedIn or via the contact us form

It’s over to you sports fans!