How the EuroLeague and Turkish Airlines are using VR to change the basketball experience at the Final Four

This weekend sees the four best basketball teams in Europe compete in the season finale of the continent’s premier club competition – the Turkish Airlines Final Four.

This year’s event will be very different to 12 months ago, when Turkey’s Anadolu Efes Istanbul won their first championship in front of empty stands at the Lanxess Arena in Cologne. A full crowd is expected at the Stark Arena in Belgrade, with Efes eager to join an exclusive list of clubs to have successfully retained the title.

First up, they will take on Greece’s Olympiacos in the first semi-final on Thursday, competing for the right to take on the winner of the second tie between old rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid. Then, on Sunday, the champions of Europe will be crowned.

The Final Four is not just the conclusion to the season, it’s also the EuroLeague’s showpiece event. It’s an opportunity for the league to showcase the unique atmosphere of European basketball to casual sports fans or those more acquainted with the National Basketball Association (NBA). For some viewers, it’s the only time they will interact with the league each year.

The EuroLeague takes pride in its history of disruption, shifting to a club ownership model at the start of the millennium, and now sees technology as a way it can build its audience and differentiate itself from other events.

How the EuroLeague and Turkish Airlines are using VR to change the basketball experience at the Final Four

Anadolu Efes Istanbul were crowned EuroLeague champions in 2021 (Getty Images)

A history of innovation

“When the EuroLeague was created, it was disruptive to the sports industry in Europe…and we’re still evolving,” Alex Ferrer, brand and communications senior director at Euroleague Basketball, which organizes the competition, tells SportsPro† “We always want to be at the forefront of the sports business by identifying new innovations and revenue streams because, at the end of the day, we are not soccer and money isn’t as easy to come by. We need to support our teams and help them grow.”

Startup competitions like the Fan XP Innovation Challenge are a critical part of this process. Innovative technology companies are invited to present their technologies and demonstrate how they can help enhance the fan experience, in exchange for mentorship and networking sessions, exhibition space at industry conferences, and the opportunity to work with the EuroLeague and its partners.

Although the EuroLeague is by far the biggest competition in Europe, the NBA is the leader globally in terms of audience and is itself viewed as one of the most progressive and technologically-advanced sports organizations in the world. The EuroLeague sees technology as a way of ensuring it can offer the same digital experience that fans expect, but also as a key differentiator if it can take the initiative.

“It’s very important for us to stay ahead with technology because if we’re not, then we’re playing catch up and we have the NBA – a bigger brand with bigger resources – ahead of us all the time and that will grab all the attention,” Ferrer adds.

“We’re not trying to compete directly with the NBA, we are different markets, but the comparison is easy to make. If we can get involved early in the development of new technologies, we can tailor them to our needs and reap the benefits at a lower price point than what we would have done if we just copy what others will be doing.”

Adding value for fans and partners

Lead partner Turkish Airlines is a valuable ally in this pursuit. The airline has been title sponsor of the competition since 2010 and is working with the EuroLeague to see how technology can enhance the experience for viewers.

“Turkish Airlines has been our lead partner for several years now and they’ve always supported our goals and ambitions to grow the business and to find out what’s next for the sport industry,” explains Ferrer. “Turkish Airlines are the perfect partner because they have the financial [capability] but also the ambition of seeing their brand involved with innovation. They want to have their brand actively involved with the latest innovations in the industry.”

For the Final Four in Belgrade, the EuroLeague and Turkish Airlines have read three key innovations to excite fans.

The first is ‘Flight Time’, an on-screen graphic that shows viewers how long a player spends in the air when dunking or blocking the ball. The calculations are generated using technologies from Hawk-Eye Innovations, which also operates the EuroLeague’s instant replay system, and have previously been used during the playoffs for social media clips. However, for the Final Four, these calculations will be done in real time and fed into on-screen graphics during the live broadcast.

The EuroLeague is also launching a metaverse platform called EuroLeague Land, where fans can create digital avatars to interact with other fans and virtual environments in between matches, as well as participate in mini games.

The next best thing to being there

But the most exciting innovation is EuroLeague TV VR, which will broadcast every game from the Final Four in virtual reality (VR). The service was available in Cologne last year, and given that no fans were allowed in the arena, it meant it was the closest way anyone except players or officials could get to the action.

“Last year was a trial run to test the technology,” explains Ferrer. “We needed to [learn more] about where to position the cameras in the arena, the production process, the level of automation required and the different levels of interaction from the users on different platforms.

“The best practices on how to produce a basketball game for television are well known but VR was a blank canvas for us, and we wanted to set certain standards for how it was going to work. This year we know the final camera distribution and functionalities, although we are changing the process a little bit because last year we had no fans, and this year we will have a full arena.”

The EuroLeague app gives fans the opportunity to customize their experience

The EuroLeague’s interest in VR predates the pandemic and the hope is that it will become an economically viable product in the long term, engaging fans, driving revenues, and delivering value for partners like Turkish Airlines. Fans who purchase the game on the EuroLeague TV platform gain access to the VR feed via the same web platform or through a dedicated mobile app, with those owning an Oculus or Meta Quest headset receiving the full immersive experience.

The VR platform is a direct result of one of the EuroLeague’s startup competitions. YBVR was one of the winners several years ago and an initial attempt to bring its VR technology to the EuroLeague was hampered by the pandemic-enforced suspension of the competition in 2020.

“Not everyone can go to an arena because of the availability or cost of tickets, or because they live overseas, but they still want to have the connection of being close to the action and feeling the atmosphere of a EuroLeague arena,” Ferrer adds.

“We want to educate people and help them discover these new technologies while also onboard them onto different platforms. Of course, the goal is for them to experience it in VR on the Oculus headset but not everyone has one yet. So, it will be an educational process for both us and the audience to get there.”

How the EuroLeague and Turkish Airlines are using VR to change the basketball experience at the Final Four

The VR technology was first used at last year’s Final Four in Cologne

Taking fans on a journey

YBVR’s system uses two 180-degree cameras placed on each backstop and another 360-degree camera that captures the entire arena and can be controlled by the user. What makes YBVR’s technology unique is the software-based synchronization and optimization of images so that the best possible quality feed can be delivered while still making the most efficient use of the bandwidth available on a user’s broadband connection. What this means is that users can switch between multiple camera angles without any buffering that would compromise the immersive nature of the experience.

“Basically, what we do is replicate the human eye,” says YBVR’s Andres Suarez. “Field of view optimization means when we look at something directly, we see it in the best possible definition. But this is not as much in our peripheral vision, and [behind] us, it’s not even needed. Our technology shifts and synchronises as we would do moving around that 360-degree world.

“We’re looking to create a new avenue for monetization. Sports teams and leagues have sold radio rights, then TV rights and now there’s another medium – virtual reality. I think those that position themselves early will have a lot of the homework already done and so will be well-placed when this becomes a strong business line.

“It’s exciting for us to partner with an innovative organization like EuroLeague that’s really focused on how to engage younger fans and how to provide the experience they’re asking for. The younger fan wants to be in control and they’re going to appreciate the customizable aspect of this.”

Sports broadcasting in VR is still in its infancy, and the EuroLeague wants to ease fans into the idea of ​​watching basketball using a new technology so that they are ready to experience it when the product becomes more mature.

“Next year, we are aiming to produce a game from each round of the regular season in VR,” promises Ferrer. “This means we’ll be making content on a regular basis and our fanbase can become educated. At the end of the day, it is our audience who will decide whether this is a viable product. We’re trying to be early but [equally] we don’t want to burn all our resources – this needs to be sustainable.

“Success would be if 80 per cent of people who watch the Final Four on our OTT platform at least test out the VR product for a quarter or two quarters. Or even the whole game.

“We want to take our audience as a companion on our journey as we try different things to enhance the fan experience.”

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