Live Event Sports on TV: Immune to PVRs? Not to Virtual Ads

By: Dexter Brown 

Real or not, virtual ads deliver another revenue stream for sports teams and broadcasters; the ads can be put in places that wouldn’t otherwise be practical physically. They can be highly targeted, and they can be easily coordinated with other advertising activities. 

Live sports is still one of the biggest draws that TV has these days, with games having at least some immunity to the media trends that show PVRs users often fast forward through TV ads, and that more people are watching programs online that have few or no commercial interruptions. 

In today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive media climate, sports broadcasters and rights-holders are utilizing virtual ads that cannot be by-passed, even with a FFWD button.     

Green (or blue) screens are used to bring in-game advertising to various live sports broadcasts; this scene is from Yankee Stadium.       

Virtual ads are an in-game revenue stream for the team or broadcaster, and they can provide lucrative advertising opportunities in places – and at times – that wouldn’t be practical otherwise. Virtual ads show up on-screen during on-field action; they can be highly geo-targeted, and they can be easily coordinated with other advertising activities. 

(Ads in a sports stadium or arena can fall into one of three main categories: there are painted or physical ads, which can be seen by people in their seats and people watching TV at home. There are green screen ads, like those sometimes seen behind home plate in a baseball telecast: people in the stadium see a blank green or blue rectangular panel; people at home see an ad, inserted technically as a chroma-key. Then there are ‘real’ virtual ads, in which no physical artefact at all is seen in the stadium or on the field, but for TV viewers, an ad appears clearly, often on or above the playing surface.)     

Physical ads behind home plate at the Rogers Centre are visible to TV viewers, and fans in the stadium.           

US-based Sportvision is behind many of the virtual ads that appear on North American sports television. The company got its start in the virtual ad game in 2003 with ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, building on broadcast enhancements developed since the company’s 1998 inception (including the infamous FoxTrax glowing hockey puck). The company has patent-pending television technology for the insertion of imagery on or instead of existing imagery, and it is well known for its PITCHfx on-screen graphics system for MLB. Sportvision has now expanded into many other sports, providing the technology and expertise needed to get virtual ads on the air to numerous broadcasters and sports properties. 

Sportvision uses a green board behind home plate for the majority of the ads seen in MLB telecasts, so ad content can be changed regularly and remotely. For the NHL, it can place ads right on the arena’s glass, above the boards; as VR ad placements the NHL on-glass ads are only seen by those watching on television and they don’t get in the way of seated fans watching the game in person. 

Unlike other MLB teams, the Toronto Blue Jays don’t use Sportvision virtual ads, turning instead to a company called Brand Brigade. The team got started with virtual ads after seeing what was being done in hockey and thought of them as a way to expand on the advertising opportunities that they already had. 

Brand Brigade has helped the Jays virtually place ads right on the field, around first base or third base, and above the wall in centre field, an area dubbed ‘the batter’s eye’. 

(Those ads behind home plate at Rogers Centre are physical ads, seen by all on TV and all in the stadium, known as ‘rotationals’ for the way the displayed ads are changed in between innings.) 

“We didn’t want to replace what was already there because behind home plate is picked up significantly on pretty much every picture, every game,” says Mark Ditmars, vice president of corporate partnerships for the Toronto Blue Jays. “Batter’s eye is a position that is highly visible, and it was an incremental revenue opportunity for the club.” 

Adding to the value and frequency of the batter’s eye virtual ad placement, the team placed a new camera on the backstop to intentionally give the area more television exposure during games. 

In addition to allowing for teams and broadcasters to insert more ads during the broadcasts, virtual ads also allow advertisers to create more dynamic, eye-catching graphic elements, depending on the sport and what the league’s contract allows the rights-holders to do. In American college football, for example, an ad might animate on from the yellow 1st & Ten line and animate off, which tends to grab people’s attention.     

Virtual graphics add 1st and Ten yardage information during live football telecasts.       

“It is a fine line of not obscuring the broadcast or distracting from the telecast, but also at the end of the day, sports is a business,” says Mike Jakob, Sportvision president and COO. “So being able to create revenue streams for the teams that they can then use to put a better product on the ice or the field or the pitch or wherever is applicable, I think that does benefit the fans.” 

Sportvision is also experimenting with making virtual ads more useful for the viewer by incorporating them with dynamically updated stats from the game. However, in their current form, virtual ads sometimes suffer occasional hiccups live on air. 

During Blue Jays telecasts, the large virtual ad out in centre field, in the batter’s eye, might appear to be a dark shadow on screen for a second or two during the action, and home runs hit ‘into it’ might just seem to disappear  into a void . Really, there’s a big black net out there, and lots of empty seats to give batters a more neutral background to watch pitches coming at them.     

No virtual ad is visible in this shot from a Blue Jays game; the black batter’s eye area is clearly seen.             

Likewise, ads on the field near the foul lines can stutter or jump on-screen. During hockey games, Sportvision’s virtual ads might appear to stutter on screen as the camera pans or players glide by. 

The Jays’ partner Brand Brigade does continue to work on technical enhancements regarding the system and the ads popping into and out of place. “It’s a graduated piece that Brand Brigade is working on and certainly has improved every season that we’ve been with them,” Ditmars says. “It certainly has been a lot better.” 

Sportvision says they’re always working to improve their technology, but the jiggling virtual ads during hockey games might be due to an unstable camera platform, the glass waving or both. That particular version of the virtual ad technology relies on having a good registration of the camera. Sportvision also has an alternate version of their hockey virtual ad technology that can be controlled from the studio or head end, in what may be essentially a production process that inserts the ad ‘live’, when desired or appropriate. These VR ads may not have the same high-quality visual characteristics as their other display solutions, but it still provides a decent result. 

In the past, Sportvision has received feedback from sports fans and has modified some aspects of the virtual ads. “There were some issues last year in the NFL preseason. Some of the rights-holders were putting logos between what they call the red zone in football,” Jakob says. “Fans reacted somewhat negatively to seeing giant logos in that area, so they were toned down.” 

Despite that some balls get lost in the batter’s eye, the Jays haven’t received many complaints about their use of virtual ads. “In the first year of our carrying virtual ads, we had some minor complaints about it [being] a little intrusive,” Ditmars says. “Those quickly went away and we haven’t heard of anything from viewers about it interrupting their viewing of the game.” 

Virtual ads can be particularly useful for advertisers who want to place ads in one market and be able to replace them with another ad for another market, taking advantage of the technology when games are broadcast into different regions or countries. 

“We work with Major League Baseball International, and primarily in the post-season telecast, to customize the ad by region. So we’ll take the feed in and send out four different streams,” Jakob says. “Instead of just having one ad that’s seen all over the world, you can have four or five different ads that are seen in different regions of the world, which obviously increases the value of that inventory from the standpoint of being able to customize an ad for an audience.” 

Sportvision isn’t the only company that works on virtual ads; many others like ORAD, BrandMagic, EVS and DBR Live carry out similar projects around the world, and not just for sports applications.  

VR technology from companies such as ORAD can insert ads, info graphics and more into live sports and other television programming.          

Despite the fact that virtual ads can bring in extra money, not all professional sports leagues are on board, and some leagues only use virtual ads in limited cases. “In the NBA, the current rights agreements with broadcasters don’t allow for the insertion of virtual ads on the court.” Jakob says. “So if that were to change, then obviously we would be interested in working with the NBA and various rights-holders.” 

In addition to the NBA, the NFL doesn’t allow virtual ads during the regular season, but does allow them for the preseason. The NCAA allows them for the regular and postseason, however. 

Despite some objections, virtual ads are here to stay – at least for some sports – because of the added revenue they can generate. 

“If advertising insertion is being done within the context of the game, that’s when you’re going to maximize the viewership of the ad versus running a 30 second spot,” Jakob says. “So being able to insert the ad, the brand into the action in a live event is one of the more valuable advertising opportunities.” 

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