CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The Charlotte Hornets are no strangers to innovation. In fact, according to chief marketing officer Seth Bennett, the basketball team was the first in the NBA to launch its own app, and the first to commit to having dedicated business intelligence and CRM departments. The Hornets also boast their own dedicated innovation department—and, as of yesterday, are the first in the NBA to launch their own virtual fan store.
The Hornets Virtual Fan Shop was designed as a direct replica of the team’s brick-and-mortar fan shop at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. Available now via mobile devices, web browsers, or even VR headsets—no download required—the immersive space lets fans build their own 3D avatars (which are created based on users' selfies) and explore the shop, walking up and down aisles, interacting with other shoppers, viewing 3D replicas of merch, and purchasing items—all from the comfort of their own homes.
“Something like this is definitely a part of our DNA," notes Bennett. "I remember putting on a VR headset earlier in the year and simulating one of our hospitality spaces—and, honestly, the opportunity was too great just to use in the hospitality area. So we've pushed it into the retail space, which allows us to expand the reach of who can enjoy this from a fan perspective. ... We’re the first in our league to have anything of this nature, and we’re super excited about that.”
The experience is powered by MeetKai, a Los Angeles-based metaverse and artificial intelligence company that has previously worked with clients in the football and racing spaces, along with non-sports industries. The company worked with the Hornets' innovation team to build the virtual shop, first thinking carefully about what would resonate with the fan base, and then studying blueprints and graphics of the real Spectrum Center and its retail space.
MeetKai also worked closely with Fanatics, the Hornets' e-commerce partner, who provided high-quality images of each product; from there, the tech company was able to create 3D renderings that can be spun around to show the items' texture, wrinkles, and curves, giving fans a more accurate depiction of what the item they're buying actually looks like.
James Kaplan, CEO and co-founder of MeetKai, notes that many metaverse-based experiences focus on creating surreal, unnatural worlds or selling digital-only merchandise. But for this experience, the team wanted it to resemble reality as closely as possible, helping fans feel like they're actually shopping on the Hornets' home turf and purchasing real items. “The goal was, ‘How can we create a virtual fan store that really brings the experience of being at the Spectrum Center?'" explains Kaplan, pointing out that being able to see how the fabric wrinkles and moves even takes things further than a traditional merch website.
Currently, there are 50 items for sale—including jerseys, T-shirts, hats, and collectibles, many with classic Hornets logos to celebrate the team's 35th anniversary this year—and all purchases will be delivered to fans' homes via Fanatics. Through MeetKai's easy-to-use technology, the team will be able to update and rearrange the inventory throughout the season; Kaplan describes it as effectively a "drag and drop" system. “[It’s an] end-to-end demonstration of virtual e-commerce in an immersive environment," he says.
The shop is slated to stay open for the duration of the 2023-2024 season, though Bennett teased the possibility of an extension based on fan reaction, along with more exclusive drops and even possible player appearances and events throughout the season. To Bennett, the overall goal of the experience isn't to increase sales—it's more about upping the team's "cool factor," he explains, particularly with the younger Gen Z and Gen Alpha demographics. “Our return is on engagement, it’s on innovation, it's on finding another way to connect and cultivate and grow our fan base," he says.
The shop also presents an opportunity to reach fans around the world who might otherwise not have the chance to engage with the team. “That’s really the enabling space for virtual," notes Kaplan. "It’s not intended to replace the physical, but to provide alternatives for people who can’t experience the physical, and to have the same impact.”
Check out the virtual fan store at https://hornets.world.