In the world of professional sports, virtual reality is becoming a reality.
Teams across the country are adopting VR as a way to deliver new experiences to fans.
“We’re always looking for ways to engage our fans,” said Chris Iles, senior director of content for the Minnesota Twins, during a panel at the 2016 AXS Sports Facilities and Ticketing Symposium in Minneapolis. “Virtual reality is a great way to bring fans into our clubhouse.”
But teams are still trying to figure out the most strategic ways to use the technology. Among the key questions they’re working to address:
As teams discover the capabilities and benefits of VR, they are still working on how to deploy the technology. Many have established stations where fans can don VR headsets for quick use, perhaps to experience a video of team activities.
A number of teams are using higher-end hardware from vendors such as Samsung and Oculus Rift. Other technology manufacturers are expected to come to the market with VR equipment soon, including Apple, Google and HTC.
Bill Schlough, CIO of the San Francisco Giants, says his team considers VR content to be like a ride at a theme park. The team is creating a series of short videos that give fans an inside look at players and games.
He added that four teams — the Giants, Twins, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox — have pioneered VR among Major League Baseball franchises. The teams are learning from each others’ efforts.
The New York Rangers are giving fans a unique experience at Madison Square Garden, where the team has set up a VR station, says Andrew Lustgarten, the arena’s executive vice president of corporate development and strategy. Fans don a VR headset and take on the role of an National Hockey League goalie trying to stop a shot by a player. Lustgarten notes, however, that there’s a limit to the reality of this VR experience: The speed of the shot is slowed down to give fans a more realistic chance to stop it.
The Red Sox deliver 300 to 400 VR experiences each game, said Brian Murphy, a managing partner at virtual reality company STRIVR. VR gives fans a chance to do something they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do, improving their experience and strengthening their connection to the team.
While VR offers a lot of promise for delivering rich experiences for fans, teams are still trying to determine how to make money from it. The most popular current model is to derive revenue from sponsored content.
Teams are still looking for different ways to include ads in their VR content. One benefit of the technology is that it allows teams to see precisely what users are looking at, 10 times per second, which can help teams target ad placement.
Panelists expressed concern that sponsors may be reluctant to invest in VR content until the technology has proved itself, but Iles noted that many ad buyers are looking for something new and cool — and are very interested in VR.
Teams are still figuring out what the best content for VR is, Murphy says. There’s no precedent, so content creators experiment to see what works. Schlough says animation is the easiest kind of content to create, but that will change as the technology matures. “The future of VR is live, and that will be awesome,” he added.
He envisions a time when VR will enable fans to sit together and experience a game, even if they’re across the country from each other.
The proliferation of wireless sensors makes it easier to create innovative content for VR, Lustgarten says. Cameras can be located in places that would be impossible to reach with wired devices, allowing content creators to get more angles on the action and improving the quality of the experience.
As they create content, teams must make sure to pay attention to sound as an element of the experience. Sound is often overlooked, Schlough says, but it provides valuable cues and richer content that improve the overall experience.
As teams get better at creating content for VR and delivering fan experiences, the technology likely will see wider adoption.
“I think it’s still an early technology,” Iles said. “People have to see that it’s really cool before it will take off.”
To learn more about how sports teams and other businesses are using VR, read “Virtual Reality Reshapes Thrill Rides, Sports Training and Architectural Design.”