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Virtual Reality’s Role in the Future of Sports

Tech companies such as San Francisco-based LiveLike VR aim to recreate the stadium experience for home viewers.
Tech companies such as San Francisco-based LiveLike VR aim to recreate the stadium experience for home viewers.

This article appeared in the June issue of Athletic Business. Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.

Imagine being able to attend all of your favorite team's games (home and away), take behind-the-scenes tours of the training facilities or a new stadium before it's built, watch practices, maybe even participate — all without leaving your own home.

In recent years, the sports world has been adjusting to the competition of "the comforts of home," upping the ante on in-venue amenities to draw fans out of their living rooms to actually attend games in person. Now, many teams and programs are taking advantage of technology to enhance the at-home experience. Virtual reality technology is becoming cheaper and more accessible with each passing year, with products such as Google Cardboard, Oculus (purchased by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg proclaiming VR technology to be "the new smartphones"), Samsung's Gear or Sony's PlayStation VR allowing sports teams to tailor experiences for fans and even players.

VR is the latest recruiting must-have among college athletic programs. Michigan, Kansas, Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, UNLV and UCLA are just a few of the athletics programs that have thrown their hats in the virtual-recruiting ring over the past year. Recruits can experience what it's like to be a part of a team huddle or walk into the stadium, all at their leisure. "From a recruiting standpoint, you can show them everything you want to show them, basically have an unofficial recruiting visit from anywhere in the country, as long as they have a smartphone and they can access us on the app," Drew Jennison, UNLV's assistant recruiting coordinator, told the Associated Press this spring.

Once the technology is in place, the progression into other applications is only natural. This spring, the University of Kansas launched Jayhawks360 VR, an upgrade to the panoramic facilities tour offered on KUAthletics.com and viewed by more than 20,000 fans since its fall debut. The new iteration creates a more immersive experience compatible with VR headsets, allowing fans to visit any of the Jayhawks' facilities using their mobile devices.

The experience is designed to be updated and improved as technology becomes available, which no doubt will happen more frequently as major technology companies turn their attention — and investments — toward the VR market. Technology giant Intel recently acquired Israeli company Replay Technologies and its freeD technology, which allows for 3-D replays of selected game highlights, giving fans an opportunity to re-watch a play from any angle. Though the technology has been around for a couple of years, under Intel's oversight it will become easier and faster to create the replay clips. "We've installed systems in [select] stadiums for all the leagues," Jeff Hopper, Intel's general manager of immersive experiences, told the Dayton Daily News, adding that sports leagues are also interested in the potential role in game officiating. "It gives you unlimited views anywhere on the field, for any play."

As VR technology becomes more widespread, it will only follow that teams and organizations look to monetize it, according to CSNBayArea.com sports business expert Andy Dolich, who predicts Virtual Season Tickets will be the next revolution in professional sports.

As part of the virtual fan experience, ticketholders would be given a customized gameday experience, including pregame stats and analytics, virtual facility tours, suites where fans can socialize with other virtual season ticketholders. "When the team is going on the road, we will have a bus and plane cam so you'll feel like you are with the traveling party," he writes.

Many of these technologies are already in existence or will be soon enough, but no unifying body is selling them. "There is a multibillion-dollar market of spending from pro sports teams fans that isn't being effectively marketed," Dolich adds. "Companies are trying to get teams to buy their product with promises of additional revenue or greater insight into existing fan behavior. At this point the market activation has many spokes but no hub. A strong Virtual Season Ticket product will capture new fans and provide a quantum leap in activating the virtual fan into a new revenue producer."


This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Virtually Endless Possibilities"

 

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