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AI and metaverse firm MeetKai and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets have unveiled the Hornets Virtual Fan Shop, marking the NBA’s first virtual team store.
This collaboration aims to get basketball fans even more engaged with the NBA team, providing an immersive shopping experience from the comfort of their own homes. Fans can reach the store via the web without a download.
Powered by MeetKai‘s AI-first tech platform, the Hornets Virtual Fan Shop takes inspiration from the physical Hornets Fan Shop at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Now, fans across the country and internationally can fully immerse themselves in Hornets fandom. It is metaverse-like in that virtual store the tries to replicate the physical experience as a kind of digital twin.
“The virtual store has banners that hang like what you see in the actual store at Spectrum Center,” said Seth Bennett, chief marketing officer at the Charlotte Hornets, in an interview with GamesBeat. “The experience is lifted directly from what a customer would see in person.”
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Accessible through mobile devices or web browsers, the virtual store offers a wide range of Hornets merchandise, including jerseys, T-shirts, hats, and collectibles. Purchases made in the virtual fan shop will be conveniently delivered to fans’ homes through the Hornets’ e-commerce partner, Fanatics, making it even easier to showcase their Hornets pride.
“Our goal has always been this idea of an easy, accessible metaverse focused on browser native platforms and we’ve come a long way with our performance and capabilities,” said James Kaplan, CEO of MeetKai, in an interview with GamesBeat. “What we’ve worked on with the Charlotte Hornets is something that we think is unique, not just in the NBA, but across all sports that we’ve seen so far.”
Kaplan shared a link with me and I dove right into the virtual store without a download. You can join on a desktop, mobile device, or VR headset if you wish. You can try on clothing or pick up mini basketballs and shoot them at small hoops in the store. Over time, more experiences will be added.
“It’s pretty much available wherever you are,” Kaplan said. “It’s a three-way partnership between us, the Hornets and Fanatics as the retail backend partner. We focused on a store that has no friction.”
The store is 3D animated so that people can browse through it or even try on virtual clothes, rather than rely on just photos. But there are plenty of photos of the NBA players through the store.
“We are now at a stage where we can show more interesting things than just a photo, where you can see how leggings look on an actual mannequin with the contours,” Kaplan said. “We’re getting to the point where virtual stores work for community commerce, and they can appeal to a younger demographic.”
The Hornets Virtual Fan Shop goes beyond traditional online shopping. Fans can create their own 3D avatars within the virtual space, enabling them to roam, shop, and interact with other fans. This environment replicates the energy of an in-person game day experience. Avatars can browse through aisles, discover products on racks, and even try on apparel and accessories virtually.
“The Charlotte Hornets are industry leaders transforming the future of the NBA’s retail experience, and we’re delighted to have the opportunity to work with the team and build their presence virtually,” said Weili Dai, MeetKai’s executive chairwoman. “What we see is AI is really adding huge benefits for the sports industry. Today, I’m extremely excited. Basketball is dear to my heart because I used to play basketball. We will show how AI can change the world and this industry. This is just the first step with a global brand.”
The introduction of the Hornets Virtual Fan Store demonstrates the Charlotte Hornets’ commitment to innovation and providing their loyal fanbase with unique and engaging experiences. Through the collaboration with MeetKai, fans can now enjoy a personalized and immersive online shopping experience, truly bringing their passion for the team to life.
“As technology continues to evolve, it’s important that we meet our fans where they are, and this is a great opportunity to enhance that connection,” said Fred Whitfield, president of Hornets Sports & Entertainment, in a statement. “The Hornets Virtual Fan Shop allows fans to enjoy the gameday shopping experience from anywhere, and we’re excited to offer this innovative new opportunity.”
Kaplan said that it will be easy to update the space as things like banners and signs change. Bennett said that the Hornets change their product mix multiple times a year with seasonal merchandising.
“We’ll refresh [the virtual store] with new items as that opportunity comes along,” Bennett said.
Kaplan said his team was able to design the virtual store without having to go there in person. They used the blueprints and images to figure out the scale. There was no need to scan the environment and translate that into a computer experience.
“We appreciate the partnership and an opportunity to expand and touch fans in a different way,” Bennett said. “This is absolutely at the forefront. And we think there’s opportunity to continue to use this technology and perhaps incorporate it in other parts of our fan experience at some point. I don’t think there’s a technology available better than what we have. We have a group of innovation specialists in our organization who are dedicated to researching cutting-edge technology. They identified this early in 2023. They brough it to our executive leadership group. We put on VR headsets and we were sold.”
Bennett said the work went on for months but it was relatively quick once the project was greenlit in the early summer. About 10 team members from the Hornets helped out. They got it ready in time for the start of the NBA season. And so it didn’t have to take a long time for development.
“A lot of the work was building the scaffolding to do it for the first time,” Kaplan said.
Fans can access the Hornets Virtual Fan Shop through the provided link and are encouraged to visit the team’s official website, app, and social media channels for more information and exciting offers. Shipping within the U.S. is free for those using the code FREESHIPHORNETS.
Los Angeles-based MeetKai has a reach to about 50 million people via its AI and metaverse tech. MeetKai also made a digital twin for a chip packaging factory being built by Silicon Box.
“This is another example of using disruptive AI technology while looking at quality, performance and cost and scalability,” Dai said.
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