Team sports have always been inherently social, as demonstrated by the phenomenon of baseball cards, which could be amassed, shared, and traded; now a new company called the Virtual Fan Network, founded in 2011, is helping athletes and advertisers reach fans via “virtual fan cards,” which carry key stats and can be shared via social media, and which can also carry advertising and sponsorships.
The virtual fan cards are designed to be rich media experiences, giving fans access to the individual player’s real-time stats, social feeds, and videos, in addition to online stores and other related digital assets. The cards can be stored in a “digital shoebox” which allows access across a range of devices, including desktop, smartphones, and tablets; they can also be integrated into online games, contests, and fantasy leagues.
The cards can integrate advertising in a number of different ways, including display ads delivered on the download page and interactive units on the cards themselves, which can include sweepstakes, photo galleries, social streams, and video, among other elements. Some initial advertising clients include Gatorade, Popchips, Bleacher Report, Sporting News, and Limos.com.
VFN founder and CEO Brian Wilhite (who played shortstop for Louisiana State University) explained that the cards enable pro and amateur athletes alike to generate income via digital advertising, regardless of whether they have built a large social media following. For example, if a relatively obscure player suddenly breaks out with a spectacular touchdown or homerun, his updated virtual fan card, highlighting the moment,can be available for download from a variety sports-focused publishing partners almost immediately, offering advertisers greater scale than a Facebook page with just a few thousand followers.
Advertising on virtual fan cards also allows brands to associate themselves with athletes without taking on the risk of reputational damage which can result from endorsements (amply illustrated by the fallout from Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal).
So far VFN has signed up over 1,200 former and current athletes for its virtual fan cards, while over 10 million fans have joined the network.