It might flash brightly and relentlessly throughout sporting events, but digital in-stadium signage is barely visible in industry statistics.
And yet it is becoming increasingly valuable and even part of multimillion-dollar broadcast rights negotiations.
Techfront Australia chief executive Neil Maxwell has LED signage at ANZ Stadium. Photo: Janie Barrett
Digital signage has been updated in major stadiums around the country and is often installed for just single games in smaller venues, with the companies that own LED signs willing to provide and operate equipment in exchange for a slice of the advertising revenue.
However, sport stadium signage does not count towards industry figures for out-of-home (OOH) advertising, according to a spokeswoman for the Outdoor Media Association. Revenue for OOH in Australia increased nearly 15 per cent in 2016 to $790 million. It is one advertising medium with increasing revenue, unlike television and print.
Suncorp Super Netball has signed a new deal to have LED signs at every match for the next five years. Photo: Chris Lane
Meanwhile the Standard Media Index does count stadium signage. A spokeswoman said stadiums recorded just $12 million of the $828 million it recorded for OOH advertising in 2016.
But digital signs may be underestimated, particularly according to those who work in the industry. Animated signs continue to open up new revenue possibilities although advertising agencies are still working out how to use them effectively.
Neil Maxwell, chief executive of Techfront Australia, says in India advertisers already have the ability to buy space for their brand for key events such as the last few runs before a batsman reaches a century. Revenue for key moments can be four times higher than the rest of the game, he added. The key moment slots can be sold in advance, or closer to the start of the game.
Maxwell believes there is space for more digital signage around sports events.
Sports fans are watching the action while digital signs scroll in the background. Photo: Getty Images
“I just think the onus is on us to let the market know this is happening,” he says.
Techfront recently purchased ScreenCorp in Australia and plans to set up an LED assembly plant. Its speciality is modular temporary signage for stadiums that don’t host enough large events to justify permanent LED screens. Techfront sells some of the ad inventory to cover its costs and the rest is sold by the rights holder or competing teams.
Getting a brand name in an action shot can be achieved through luck, or carefully negotiated deals to have the brand present during ‘key moments’. Photo: Getty Images
For advertisers there are benefits such as changing messages or creative work from week to week, or tailoring advertising to each city.
And advertisers can bypass clubs and sporting codes to get their brand in front of a sports audience. Plus, brands are not wedded to the behaviour of sportsmen and sportswomen.
People are watching sport for sport and that’s when digital signs are at their best.
QMS Media chief Barclay Nettlefold
“The Australian stadium marketplace is unique to other parts of the world, here, sports codes and clubs [and] teams do not have 100 per cent ownership of the stadiums,” Simon Ryan, chief executive of Dentsu Aegis Network in Australia and New Zealand, says.
“Previously, this made it difficult for clubs to ‘dress’ or ‘theme’ the stadium for fans. The introduction of LED, in bowl, but equally on stadia facia, has allowed the sports (in this case hirers of venues) to theme the venue to their particular team or sport – significantly enhancing the experience for the fans.”
Dentsu owns MKTG, which owns and operates screens at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and Etihad Stadium. It has exclusive rights for all in-stadium assets for AFL matches in both stadiums and all international cricket at the MCG. It operates the LED for Cricket Australia for all international and Big Bash matches.
The Red Cross Blood Service has taken advantage of digital signs to extend its “blood rule” television ads that screen on Channel Seven into stadiums.
“The Blood Service currently has a partnership with Etihad Stadium and the Melbourne Cricket Ground to display the blood rule advertisement on their digital screens, and we intend to continue it next financial year,” managing director Samantha Bartlett says.
“The blood rule works well in a stadium environment because it transforms what could be an annoying pause in a fast-paced game of football into an entertaining and informative way of educating people about the ongoing need for blood.
Richard Simkiss, AFL general manager of commercial, says digital signs can quickly turn a multi-tenant venue into a home ground. The revenue split is similar to analog signage.
“Clubs are allocated a large percentage of the time pre- and post-match for their individual theming and promotion of partners, and the LEDs have led to the creation of more engaging content that has been well received by fans,” Simkiss says.
“In-match time is shared between clubs, club and AFL partners, and other parties who purchase signage space through MKTG.”
At first temporary screens were trucked in and out for major events, such as Techfront supplying signs at every stadium during the 2015 Cricket World Cup. But this was soon replaced with permanent screens at the MCG.
In a similar model, Suncorp Super Netball recently signed a five-year deal with QMS’ new subsidiary, Out & About Media & Marketing. Under the deal OAMM will provide digital signs at every netball game during the season, including 28 televised games. In exchange, OAMM shares the ad inventory with Netball Australia and the competing teams.
There are strict rules in place to ensure rights holders do not sell brands that clash with team sponsors. But it is yet to be seen if this new digital model works for clubs as well as static signage does.
“Netball Australia and the eight clubs will evaluate the value and success of using LEDs at the end of the season”, Netball Australia spokeswoman Alex Dandanis said.
“This is the first year that LED signage is being used during the home and away season … we’ve seen innovative club call-to-action messages, crowd participation through concepts like ‘beat the ball’ and club branding,” she says, adding club sponsors get further integration opportunities, “beyond the traditional static signage used in previous national netball leagues”.
Barclay Nettlefold, chief executive of listed outdoor advertising company QMS Media, says his company is working towards selling week to week advertising that would let brands target all the matches of a particular sport for a short period. It is also working on dynamic auctions – brands competing to be in the background during cliffhangers and key events.
“That is a horizon where we want to get to, no doubt,” Nettlefold says.
“But it is also about making sure that we are in unison with clients – making sure we have creative [material] ready to go, which has its own complexities.”
QMS recently purchased OAMM for $11.25 million. OAMM has permanent signs in large stadiums such as ANZ Stadium and the SCG.
“People are watching sport for sport and that’s when digital signs are at their best,” Nettlefold says.
In other words, sports fans may dash to the toilet or fridge during an ad break, but they are watching all the action while digital signs scroll along in the background.
QMS is working out how to collect data to quantify the effectiveness of digital sports signage, which is currently priced too cheaply, Nettlefold believes.
As a member of the Outdoor Media Association, QMS now has an interest in getting in-stadium advertising counted in the OOH category, but unless the whole sports sector is reporting then it won’t work.
Cricket Australia is looking at including the value of digital signs in their next round of broadcast rights, according to its executive general manager of broadcasting, digital media and commercial, Ben Armafio.
“The ability to control the level of broadcast exposure for signage and branding at-match is one of the key objectives we will be investigating and considering in our next broadcast deal,” he told Fairfax Media.
Dynamic advertising could co-ordinate camera positions with a brand appearing on signs and commentators mentioning the brand.
“We currently already sell key moments such as wickets, boundaries and milestones to sponsors. The only difference being that we do this beforehand and package it with their overall deals. We have and will continue to review several ‘dynamic advertising’ models and are open to the concept if it meets our needs,” Armafio says.
Meanwhile, advertising agencies are still working out how to best exploit digital signs. Animation is possible, but brands don’t want their logo to disappear during the seconds that someone jumps into the air – a moment often immortalised in photos and replays.
And traditionalists may find digital signs too brash and distracting when action is supposed to be on the field, not around the stadium. For example, AFL fans are getting increasingly angry about Tissot’s new countdown clock appearing on signs for the last two minutes of a game. The countdown spoils the nervousness fans feel when they know a siren is coming, but not exactly when.
OAMM chief executive Ed Abbott says his technicians monitor the visual impact of screens during games.
“We work very closely with the broadcaster making sure we are not too bright or too dull [and] making sure the cameras will not turn off us because we are burning the hell out of everyone’s retinas,” he says.
When asked if LED is too distracting Maxwell says “ultimately that is the sports’ decision.
“But I think that’s a very small negative in the scheme of things. That can be turned down with a dial”.
Animator Chris Northey says the best impact from LED animations comes when clubs use their colours and mascots to rouse fans. He remembers an Essendon home game where the stadium went dark except for a plane flying around on the horizontal screens.
“Speaking as fan rather than an animator, I enjoy the clubs’ stuff more than the advertisers,” says Northey, who does work for AFL Media.
Animations for stadium hoarding have to fit in a much shorter space than normal screens and Northey also has to find a balance between trying to get something that is eye-catching, but not distracting and annoying. Brands want their logo to be visible for as long as possible, but also take advantage of movement, he added.