Saints and Pelicans Moving Forward With Virtual Reality/360


The hallway is surreal. Life sized photos of NBA players would be enough to make you feel like you were traipsing through a human forest. These pictures are bigger than life. Anthony Davis stares down at me as I pass, like Godzilla pondering a snack. Others offer the same intense stare they bring to the court. It's a stare made even more startling through eyes the diameter of tennis balls. On the left, beneath the gaze of center Alexis Ajinca, sits a medium sized room outfitted for a team of four charged with a big task. This small group is responsible for producing the video content for not one, but two professional sports franchises. They work for the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans and the NFL's New Orleans Saints. The two clubs fall under the same ownership, creating some merged departments that are unprecedented in pro sports. They're the only ones doing both pro basketball and pro football under one roof. 

They work within two leagues that are aggressive and innovative when it comes to telling their stories and communicating with their fans. In an effort to stay on that cutting edge, the Saints/Pelicans group entered the world of virtual reality/360 video a couple of years ago. Bringing me in is an effort to take the step from sharing moments (something they do fantastically), to telling more complete stories. 

Why now? For starters, the "VR boom" anticipated since 2016, may finally be in the offing. Oculus has released the "Go," a head mounted display that is affordable (about $200) and doesn't require a phone or a super computer to operate. This potential gateway for new users, lowering price points on higher end units like the Rift and the Vive, and the full backing of Oculus parent and business behemoth Facebook all seem to be good news for the industry. Facebook's involvement, and its ability to influence a massive, global audience is particularly promising to VR believers. 

Beyond the VR tea leaf reading, there is the more basic concept of creating great content to stand out in the midst of all the noise on the internet and in social media. For the Saints and the Pelicans, compelling storytelling is a key component to continuing to move their brands forward. That applies to their traditional video work as well as 360 material. In the end, working in the most cutting edge of spaces, and producing the most compelling material possible will lead to a successful communication strategy. 

The two New Orleans sports franchises face different challenges and goals in their communications strategies, and even in how they utilize VR/360. 

Collectively, the NFL has been "all in" on VR. The league is working closely with Intel, and dedicating highly coveted NFL Films resources to the genre. While the league is closely guarding "whistle to whistle" game action, the individual teams have the opportunity to create content with all that surrounds the games. For a club like the Saints, which dominates the sports landscape in New Orleans above all others, maximizing the fan experience is a key. For Saints coverage, telling fan-centered stories focused away from the field is key.

The NBA is also exploring VR from the league level, but with seats to fill for 82 games, the landscape is different, and the teams are given more autonomy in what they can produce. In New Orleans, there's the added challenge of the franchise being comparatively new. They've only been in the market since 2002, and re-branded from Hornets to Pelicans in 2013. They lack the decades-long relationship with the fanbase that many of their counterparts in the NBA take for granted. 

Our work to influence their VR/360 games focused on a couple of different areas. First, there are the mechanics of shooting 360 video. I had the opportunity in 2016-2017 to work full time in the VR/360 space. While so many others are trying to take on the technology as an added bit of load to an already busy schedule, I was able to make learning it, executing it, and teaching it my primary focus for nearly a year. Also, because I was working on a formula to use VR in news, I developed strategies that are both faster and cheaper than typical VR production methods. All this is attractive to a unit trying to operate in an economic fashion, and faced with the need to turn material around quickly. 

After a morning's worth of the nuts and bolts, we transitioned to something useful both in 360, and their more traditional video work. Storytelling. For my money, this is the lost (or not yet found) art in a social media world where video is quickly becoming king. People know they need moving pictures to draw eyeballs, but it's the ones who know how to tell engaging stories in that video realm that are standing out. Look at the videos you see on Facebook and Youtube. For every piece of compelling content you find, there are easily ten videos that aren't worth 30 seconds of your time, let a lone a few minutes. The folks in the Saints/Pelicans organization understand this, and see the value in making their people better. This is something we worked hard at during our time together. 

The New Orleans approach to VR/360 is just one of many. They're being aggressive, and charting their own destiny by working to not just create the content, but to do it better than their competitors. Other franchises are choosing to contract out the work for the time being. Still more just aren't sure what to make of it, and are leaving the content creation to their respective leagues right now. (That would be the most passive, and, for my money, worst way to approach things.)

The fact is, we live in a time where one of the world's most influential media companies (Facebook) has a product (VR) in which they've invested upwards of $3 billion. They want a return on that investment, and it requires getting as many people as possible to adopt the technology. Notably, millennials and those younger than that will be in their crosshairs. It's a long game, but one they have the motivation and resources to win. The question any organization that produces content has to answer is whether they're going to be out front on the technology or scrambling when they realize it has arrived. The internet and social media both left a long trail of businesses who suffered painful, and even fatal consequences for being too late to the party. 

Back in New Orleans, it will take time to measure results, and some of those measurements will be subjective. But what is clear is that in this building where you can't help but look up in hallways filled with giants, the people running the show are spending just as much time looking forward.