David Pritchard, Chief Commercial Officer, GroundWOW – creators of the world’s first autonomous full colour stadium ground printer shares his thoughts with SportsPro on how the sports industry can leverage the branding opportunity sitting at its feet.
Sometimes something is just so close to you that you no longer realise it is there. It is either under your nose or you are just so accustomed to seeing something that your sense of its presence or value diminishes over time. Sometimes, it’s as simple as the blindingly obvious that passes us all by.
In sport, it is easy to agree that the pitch, the arena, the field, the course, the track is where everything happens. It is the object of a fixated fan’s attention for hours on end and for the duration of the event, the audience is truly captive.
Around it, rights holders seek to convey messaging and brand preferences to their audience via the LED infrastructure, the stadium naming rights or perhaps even the name of the trophy. But what if you don’t have that and even if you do, isn’t there an argument to suggest that a fan is already looking at somewhere else even more closely when it comes to the real action? Isn’t that the pitch perimeter, the playing surface, the tee box, the wicket, the fairway, the parade ring, the run-offs, the outfield?
Everybody will have seen ground painted activations in all these areas over the years but very few people give any thought as to how they are actually put down. They are not crop circles and they don’t just land from outer space. They are delivered instead by large teams of people with lots of machinery, the time and cost that goes with that and a lot of paint. In a related sense, audiences are occasionally exposed to virtual ground advertising such that a logo is visible on a broadcast but not to the 100,000 screaming fans absorbed by every single aspect of what’s happening in front of them. That too comes at a cost and with its own infrastructure requirement.
It brings you back to why technology hasn’t come to actual ground markings sooner than it has. As part of an organisation leading the way in that sector, I am happy to suggest that one reason might be the complexity of the task at hand. It isn’t easy! It was five years before world first technology emerged from our own GroundWOW venture in the guise of an autonomous vehicle that drives around a venue’s activation sites printing high-resolution images and logos direct to the surface as it goes. Stunning visual images and logos created by robots are starting to appear at the track, on the field or by the pitch and in the same genius-like way that Ronnie O’Sullivan makes an unfathomable pot appear simple, it might look easy until you know that it isn’t. Onlookers are oblivious to the A.I, the computer vision, the Machine Learning and the full cloud infrastructure carrying OTA updates around the globe in real time. In that respect, these are the only logos that land from outer space.
If you think about technology that is truly transformational, ease of use is normally a feature. It doesn’t matter what is under the hood, to drive adoption, technology needs to be intuitive and this in turn drives traction. If you can take away the pain of the old way of doing anything, it gets you back to why you did it in the first place. In sport, the answer to that is easy. Cash. For the robotic ground printing process, ease of use means that the user has only to select the surface type, the length of the blades if they are printing onto grass, the image dimensions and then send the job to print. A.I informs the robot about the surface it is printing onto and assures a perfect deposition of paint for maximum visual impact, regularly up to 90% less than conventional methods. Meanwhile, the operator looks on at beautiful grand scale art preoccupied with the possibilities that technology brings with it. What if you could quickly turn any available surface into advertising real estate? What if you really could make printing on the ground as easy as printing on paper? Are we literally printing money?
With eyeballs everywhere, the value of prime real estate across sport is probably higher than it has ever been. Talk to Premier League football teams who will happily reference the Nielsen research apportioning media value to their pitch perimeter running into hundreds of thousands of pounds and beyond. Listen as well to the stories of club main sponsors demanding exclusivity on pitchside brand presence and that the rights to activate these areas are written into their agreements. For switched on brands and clubs who are truly engaged in the activation of any sponsor agreement, the value of any high-profile space in the real action areas is well known. But not everybody gets it.
What I have seen on our tech journey to here is that sport is generally a fan of innovation which validates the reason we chose to launch in sport in the first place. Not unusually, some organisations are more tech curious than others, innovation focused and open to change. However almost every organisation is amenable to clean, eco-friendly innovation that has the potential to drive incremental revenue even if the club wallet is already full to bursting. For anybody whose remit pertains to revenue, then time efficiency and cost efficiency are great conversation starters alongside inexpensive SaaS subscriptions and rapid ROI which are very much the narrative of the here and now.
Nothing good came out of the pandemic but we all know that in sport, organisations at every level were forced to look hard at their revenue models and to see if they were sweating their assets hard enough. With the seemingly insatiable clamour of brands to associate with elite level sport and the emergence of any new tech that helps to either create or maximise inventory, clubs and venues must look inwardly to consider what percentage of their available assets are in use. It’s no secret that clubs falling into financial disarray are very often those with under-subscribed commercial inventory. In some instances, we hear that only twenty percent of available assets are used versus the commercial success stories of any sport who will be significantly more proactive and operating a much higher percentage of existing assets.
To debunk a myth, wealth and available resource aren’t always the differentiators here either. Appetite and commercial acumen are every bit as important and they’re part of the reason our own project includes campus planning software for proactive entities that want to activate their entire estate. A deeper dive reveals branding opportunity across game days and also non-game days, corporate and hospitality, conference and exhibition, product launches, player signings, media activity, opportunistic activations. None of these things are the preserve of only wealthy entities. They are rooted instead in the thought processes of the commercially proactive who embrace change and seek out the opportunities that technological transformation brings with it.