James Gambrell, chief executive of Supponor, explains how the London-headquartered company is using augmented reality technology to revolutionise pitchside sports advertising, and how this digital content is opening up new revenue streams for the Bundesliga and La Liga.

Supponor is using virtual advertising to transform pitch-side sponsorship

Supponor’s DBRLive technology replaces traditional perimeter board advertising in sports broadcasts with virtual overlays. This technique leverages additional advertising space, allowing different brands to occupy the same space on existing pitchside boards while advertising to different markets. 

Having excited rights holders with the promise of its offering for nearly a decade, the London-headquartered finally got the ball rolling four years ago when it partnered with the Mediapro agency to bring its virtual advertising technology to Spanish club soccer’s top flight, La Liga. More recently, a strategic partnership with Lagardère Sports has helped Supponor’s product win the approval of the German Football League (DFL) for use in the Bundesliga.

SportsPro caught up with the company’s chief executive, James Gambrell (below right) to learn more about how Supponor’s technology allows  segmentation of brand advertising for individual audience-groups, and how brands will be able to deliver ever more tailored messages to fans.

James Gambrell

Could you explain what virtual advertising is and how it works?

Television is obviously a very powerful mass-market medium, but very much a blunt instrument. You reach a lot of people at the same time with a popular sport but it’s very difficult to differentiate between different audience groups. Few brands can really get much value from putting out one message to everyone on the planet, so our technology basically allows you to change the brand communication based on geography, or it could be based on whether you’re on your mobile phone or your tablet or you’re watching it on television, or based upon demographic or behavioural information to help you target on a personalised basis. The idea is to make the brand message more impactful and more appropriate for whoever is watching.

There are a number of ways that this can be exploited. On the one hand, you can use this for production enhancements. For example, when a team scores, we can cover the boards with their colours, and provide statistics, data and contextual messaging, which we have done when working with the National Hockey League (NHL).

Historically, brands sponsoring teams’ TV visible signage has been closer to the domestic market. So if you look at Germany, for example, the vast majority of brands are very much trying to reach a German audience. Our technology gives you a chance to provide the same category of sponsorship, but for many markets – so you could have a credit card company partnering with a football club like Manchester United and you could have one credit card company for the UK and one for Taiwan and so on. Typically, it’s very difficult if you’re a foreign business to really leverage on your investment. Having the virtual signage is a really powerful way to get additional reach and impact to some of those sponsors that clubs or leagues might have.

Who are your current sports clients and in what ways are you working with them?

We believe that it’s important to try and grow our business through close collaborative partnerships with trusted organisations because a lot of key stakeholders in the industry need to be satisfied that what we’re doing is high quality. There also needs to be cooperation between a league, a club, broadcasters and sponsors themselves, because the decision to deploy our technology is not made by just one of these parties, we have to work across all of them.

Our earliest partner in Spain was Mediapro and we started working with them four or so years ago. Mediapro has an unusual circumstance in that they host television production work and are very much technical but they are also major rights holders, so they own a huge amount of the TV-visible signage rights in La Liga. So it’s a nice combination for us, because they know and understand how to monetise assets and create value for sponsors, and they also understand the technical aspect.

Our more recent relationship with Lagardère Sports in Germany is a very exciting one for us. Almost a year and a half ago we got together at the Sportel conference in Monaco, and started to explore how we might work together. It was almost exactly one year later when we signed our partnership. They are helping us to deploy our system into the Bundesliga in Germany. As the largest sports rights marketing agency in the Bundesliga, they represent seven of the 18 clubs, so that’s really important for us.

We work closely with them and we did our European roadshow in the spring in 2017; we went to ten or 11 of the Bundesliga clubs with our equipment and did a live demonstration and that helped create a lot of interest and understanding that the technology had matured, become very stable and robust and that the quality was good. After that, we did a demonstration in May in Frankfurt, with a full stadium system which was followed by a series of tests for the Bundesliga— they wanted to see if we could repeat the quality that they’d seen at Frankfurt in multiple stadiums across multiple games, which we did. And now we’ve been approved so we’re looking to start commercialising and doing more deployment in earnest next season.

Lagardère has been quite instrumental in leveraging their long-term relationships and they understand the challenges and opportunities and some of the politics in terms of the football in the Bundesliga. It’s important that we’re open and available to everyone and our ultimate goal is league-wide deployment in the Bundesliga. While our partnership is exclusive, it’s structured in such a way that we’re not going to force a club to work with us in a way that they don’t want to. It’s all up to each club to decide: do they want to be a client of Lagardère and have Lagardère monetise all of their assets, or do they want to do it themselves? And if they do, then we have a way to allow them to work directly with us as well.

Supponor Reality Augmented

Why do you align your product with soccer, and what makes those partnerships stand out for you?

This company was originally founded in Europe, in Finland, and we now have headquarters in London. If you’re in tier-one sport, football clearly dominates in Europe— with five major leagues, it’s a rich pool of opportunity. Also they have perimeter signage and it’s quite prominent and prevalent in these environments and well understood, so as a market it allows you to leverage the technology you’ve got and seems a natural fit from that perspective.

We’re starting to push into other sports and have done quite a bit of work now in North America with the NHL. We did our first broadcast match in the National Football League (NFL) in Mexico City late last year and we’re working with virtually all the five major leagues in the US, as well as having done a number of pre-commercial deployments at a number of motorsport and tennis events.

We think there are a number of applications, and an important lesson we’ve learned from soccer is that it’s a tough environment, because it’s outdoors and because of the environmental impact, for example, the rapidly changing light conditions caused by sun and shade which are a real challenge for many live broadcast technologies. This has made us have to work twice as hard to create something that’s really robust and capable of high quality. It’s a good training ground for us as we move to other sports, which will be challenging in different ways.

How does the fact that different territories might be broadcasting at different times impact the way you integrate your technology, or the way it can be monetised?

Being able to segment the distribution by timeslot adds a significant amount of value for rights holders. We need to be onsite, integrated into the broadcast workflows, so once that’s done, there are numerous ways that our tech can be transmitted or monetised.

So aside from different brands being shown according to geography, it could be that when you have a delayed broadcast, you might have a different set of sponsors. You can also have a different set of brand communications just for a highlights package, for example. Other brands might want to be associated with scoring and success, so you can do context-based brand communications.

The technology was originally only used on static boards rather than LED boards. How has the product developed, and how has distribution of your product evolved?

We work with a range of form factors when it comes to physical signage systems. We originally started with static signs and that’s what we’ve been deploying for four years with Mediapro in La Liga and we continue to support that. But we came out a year and a half ago with an LED-enabled signage because one of the things that we were hearing from our clients and prospective clients was that they wanted animated or LED signage and were concerned about the in-stadium fan experience.

We partnered with ADI who manufacture LED technology, and we developed Supponor-enabled LED signage. Static signage clearly still has a place, though. In Formula One for example, the FIA won’t allow LED signage even if it’s not animated because it could distract drivers. We will continue to work with both forms but we now have a range of surfaces and solutions that we can virtualise depending on the need of our client.

What’s in the pipeline for your future and are there any other markets you’re specifically targeting?

Our primary focus is transatlantic. We’re looking at Western Europe and North America so obviously will continue to try and expand when it comes to European football. North America has five major leagues there obviously, and we’re known to all those leagues and we’re looking to work with them more in the future.

There are also some global sports as well – from golf, tennis and motorsports – and in each of those categories we are in the midst of some concept-testing, profiling solutions. Being a British company, we have a mid-term objective of being able to call the Premier League into our orbit. We have spent time with them, they are incredibly successful, but they move at their own pace.

The approval of the Bundesliga is incredibly important because they’re a real bellwether and they ran us through a series of tests and analyses like no one else has. A lot of leagues struggle to know how to evaluate technology because that’s not their expertise, but the Bundesliga has the tech and they understood the challenges we faced and what we needed to be successful.