How Leinster Rugby is making a play for the metaverse

14 Jul 2022

Kevin Quinn, Leinster Rugby’s head of commercial and marketing, and Gillian O’Sullivan, country leader for BearingPoint Ireland. Image: Shane O'Neill

Vish Gain tried out the VR tech being developed by BearingPoint for Leinster Rugby as the team tries to stay ahead of the game in the metaverse.

I fell off the roof of Dublin’s Aviva Stadium last week.

Thankfully, it wasn’t actually the Aviva – just a virtual reality version of it, and all I ended up hurting was my reputation.

I was at BearingPoint’s Ireland office trying out its new VR technology developed for Leinster Rugby to better engage with fans across the world.

As Leinster Rugby’s official innovation partner, the multinational technology consulting firm has been working with the Irish sporting franchise to leverage the latest developments in immersive technologies and get ready for the metaverse.

“The metaverse is a digital world where people can interact with each other and objects – basically being an actor in what’s happening in the digital world,” Eric Chevallet, head of BearingPoint’s immersive labs, told me.

“This is opposed to the traditional online experience where you’re picking objects but there’s no real interaction.”

Creating an audience

While this concept of the metaverse may have been popularised by Facebook’s recent brand change to Meta, Chevallet said that BearingPoint’s interest in doing something with metaverse technology started in early 2021, when the company met with a start-up working in this emerging space.

“When we saw that, we looked to ourselves and said that is definitely something that is going to change the paradigm on how we interact in the digital world,” explained Chevallet, who had saved me from a second fall off the Aviva’s roof in the metaverse minutes earlier.

This is not the first time a popular sporting franchise has made a play for the metaverse. Earlier this year, English Premier League football club Manchester City developed what is likely the first football stadium in the metaverse when Sony helped the club build a virtual version of the Etihad.

But Leinster Rugby is the first of not just the four provincial Irish rugby union teams, but of any sporting organisation on the island, to break ground in the metaverse.

“It’s about creating that audience, understanding how to engage with them, and making sure we’re staying ahead of the game,” Kevin Quinn, Leinster Rugby’s head of commercial and marketing, told me.

But who’s interested in what a rugby team is doing in the metaverse when you can follow the action on TV or, better still, live at the Aviva?

“There’s the question of how to engage with a younger audience,” Quinn said. “The metaverse is important for sports brands to remain relevant with a younger audience that may not come to our games to sample or taste what the atmosphere at a game is like.”

Sports brands have been making the most of technological developments to engage with fans. Recently, I found out how Wimbledon is using AI and data to enhance the fan experience during the one of the most watched tennis events of the year.

Quinn noted that brands such as Wimbledon have also launched in virtual environments such as Roblox in order to capitalise on a younger fan demographic. “That relevancy, I think, is really, really important for us over a five-year term.”

Social possibilities

So what kind of use cases does the metaverse offer to Leinster Rugby? While still in its preliminary stages, VR technologies from BearingPoint can help Leinster Rugby fans meet players and coaches in the metaverse – and perhaps even watch a match live someday.

Chevallet thinks the primary charm of the metaverse for sports is its social possibilities. The fact that fans can interact with the clubs they love through the metaverse even if they’re half the world away would be a great engagement opportunity for any franchise, he said.

But it doesn’t just stop at the social aspect. Chevallet said that there’s lots of opportunities in the merchandising side of things as well, such as selling official NFT-based club jerseys to fans for their virtual avatars.

“Some of the questions we’re asking are: How do you create digital assets and use that as a different kind of experience? How do you promote a different point of view and access to the VIP lounge?”

There is also the potential to sell seat tickets to customers by showing them what their view looks like in the metaverse without them having to be physically present, Chevallet added.

But in no way is the metaverse poised to be a replacement for the actual experience of watching a match, cautioned Quinn.

“In the future, ideally, you’ll have a full stadium, and outside of the full stadium you can have a different type of experience of what the match is like. The hopefully you’ll go, ‘I’d love to see what this is like for real’, or vice-versa.”

And ideally, in that not-so-far-away future, I’ll have learnt how to use a headset to find my seat in the stadium and not fall off the roof mid-match.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic