As technology helps our living room become a more attractive and comfortable place to watch live sports — think HDTVs, surround sound, multiple replays, and access to your own food, beverages and bathroom — professional team owners around the country are trying to figure out how to convince people to pay for tickets and actually watch games inside arenas and stadiums around the world.
Enthrall Sports thinks it has an answer.
The new Seattle startup today came out of stealth mode, announcing funding from people like Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Seattle Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer that are putting millions of dollars behind an idea that it hopes will make the in-game experience more compelling for fans.
The company has built technology that lets fans take their own pictures and videos which can then be shown up on an arena or stadium big screen in near real-time. It also enables fan voting from smartphones and combines in-arena cameras with facial recognition technology to measure 18 different metrics such as attention level and emotional response of those attending games, giving teams insight into what content is more engaging.
Enthrall Sports is led by founder Alan McGinnis, a former Microsoft manager and managing partner at North Avalon LLC who began working on the idea for his startup after a lunch with Tod Leiweke, a long-time friend and former CEO of the Seattle Seahawks who is now the COO of the NFL.
“If you want a really good big idea, figure out a way to fix game-day presentations,” Leiweke told McGinnis nearly two years ago.
“Game-day presentations” refers to everything that happens inside an arena when the live game isn’t being played. During a typical hockey game, McGinnis noted that you’re only watching the action for 60 minutes — that leaves another two hours of time for something else.
Traditionally, professional sports franchises in the U.S. try to keep people engaged when the action stops by having fan contests on the court or playing something mildly entertaining on the big screen. Seattle Mariners fans are probably familiar with the hydroplane races — pick your favorite colored-boat, and see which one wins.
McGinnis said this type of engagement can get repetitive, especially for season ticket holders — the most important customers who spend the most money. The CEO thinks it’s time for a change and his startup is taking a slightly different approach to game day presentations by utilizing the smartphone in our pocket and taking advantage of user-generated content.
McGinnis explained that most in-game productions are a “push experience,” meaning that fans sit in their seats and have content given to them. But with people now comfortable generating their own content (videos, photos, etc.) via smartphones with high-resolution cameras, Enthrall allows fans to get those creations up on the jumbotron.
The company’s white-label technology allows teams to include a feature inside their game-day apps like “FanCap,” which lets fans create short six-second Snapchat-like videos that might show up on the big screen, or “LiveCap,” which shares your live camera feed to everyone at the game.
“In a nutshell, we organize the chaos and build the channel,” McGinnis said.
The idea is to turn everyone at the game into live cameramen, versus the handful of game-day employees that currently try to scope out the arena for something funny to show on the big screen.
“We want to make this experience more participatory and more communal for fans,” McGinnis said. “It’s much more engaging.”
For example, a team might ask fans if they have any questions for a player. They can submit their questions via “FanCap,” and game operations employees will sift through that content and have said player answer the questions on the jumbotron.
Or, a team might put on a contest for fans to film the cutest 6-year-old at the game, for example. Once those videos flow in through “FanCap,” the team can show a curated selection of the best clips up on the big screen. Fans can then use the app to vote in real-time for their favorite fan.
“You turn over the control of who tells the story,” McGinnis noted. “It’s kind of magical stuff.”
Here are a couple compilations of FanCap videos that Tampa Bay Lightning fans recently created using Enthrall’s technology via the Lightning mobile app:
McGinnis knows fans are already using apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to share their experiences with friends while they are attending a live game. But he said his company’s technology separates itself because of the engagement and community aspects — it’s more of a “shared experience” with fans actually at the game, versus social circles on the Internet.
“If I feel like my 8-year-old has a shot at getting up on the jumbotron, that’s a lot more interesting for me than Snapchat,” he said. “You can’t discount the excitement there is when someone gets their mug up on the jumbotron. We are opening that gate wide open.”
McGinnis also noted that there are ways to share content fans have created through “FanCap” to other social media platforms.
In addition, the company offers a way for teams to pull music playlists on smartphones of fans who opt-in. This gives teams a way to see the most popular music on a given game day, and provides insight into what songs the in-arena DJ should play.
Another key point about Enthrall Sports is that the startup does not require fans to learn new technology — many are already comfortable with taking photos and videos with an app on their phone. The same goes for the teams, which are not required to add extensive build-outs to accommodate for Enthrall’s technical architecture that resides on the existing LAN and requires only a small connection to the Internet.
Enthrall Sports is already working with the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena and is in talks with other teams and leagues about incorporating its technology at games. McGinnis noted that along with increasing fan engagement, teams also like how the new features offer more sponsorship opportunities.
“At the league level, there appears to be quite a good appetite for potentially rolling this out as a league-wide initiative,” McGinnis added.
McGinnis wouldn’t provide a specific total funding number, but said that the company has raised “less than $5 million.” Enthrall Sports employs 12 at its Pioneer Square office in Seattle.