Slam Dunk or Strikeout? Sports Leagues Aim to Win With a VR Experience

By: Albert McKeon| - Leave a comment

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If you thought the clarity of HD-TV made your living room feel like a luxury box at a sporting venue, just wait until virtual reality (VR) technology matures to the point that televised penalty kicks, home runs and touchdown passes really feel within arm’s reach.

Although a fully immersive VR experience is still years away, professional sports leagues and television networks are already introducing VR elements to game coverage in an effort to bring fans closer to the action. The NCAA sold a VR app for its recent March Madness tournament, and the NFL and NBA offer post-game highlights for the VR crowd.

Wired, however, reflects that because these 360-degree video presentations still have viewers’ eyes fixed on one spot, they don’t quite qualify as true VR experiences. While these VR attempts can be critiqued as thinly veiled marketing promotions, they nonetheless demonstrate that the world of sports is serious about using the technology to win fans’ attention and drive revenue.

From a Glowing Puck to a VR Experience

It was the use of the telegraph to relay play-by-play action of the 1896 Stanley Cup challenge series between Montreal and Winnipeg that truly married sports and technology. Since then, technology has provided many hits — like instant-replay innovations — and some misses like the short-lived glowing puck Fox Sports used in NHL telecasts in an attempt to make fans without tickets feel as if they weren’t missing anything by watching at home.

With fans increasingly cutting the cord of cable TV, sports leagues recognize they need to maximize return on investment by monetizing games in other ways, as the Washington Post reported. With live streams of games on mobile apps, short videos of plays, behind-the-scenes access to the clubhouse and statistics galore, teams have kept members of the digital generation from looking elsewhere for entertainment.

Teams also believe that by embracing VR now, they’ll establish a foothold in a technology that’s expected to advance to a point where fans feel as if they’re in the presence of a 97-mph fastball. At SEAT Europe 2017, a gathering of sports executives on April 25 and 26, representatives from the Dallas Cowboys and the UEFA Champions League are expected to share why they believe VR will not only keep fans glued to the games but also provide new streams of revenue.

Waiting for the Technology to Advance

Like a team signing a young prospect to a big contract on the basis of athletic promise, sports executives hope their current investments in VR will pay dividends in the future, when the technology could become an all-star.

The use of 360-degree cameras at games provides the VR feed that’s now offered to fans. The broadcasting startup NextVR has caught the ball and run with that perspective by teaming with the NBA, NFL, NHL and NASCAR for VR coverage. NextVR’s broadcast of the 2015-2016 NBA season opener was the first ever live-streaming VR event, according to TechCrunch.

Another startup, Beyond Sports, collects player data from soccer matches to create 3-D simulations of games that can be seen from the perspectives of players and fans, while Replay Technology uses HD cameras to create a realistic 3-D capture of sports. This maneuver was successfully accomplished with a broadcast of an NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

What does the future hold? A NextVR executive told NBC Sports that the company is improving resolution and motion acuity while expanding the arc of view of its VR broadcasts. These advancements will undoubtedly aim to make VR sports viewing not just a 360-degree perspective but an experience where fans can move around as they actually would at a stadium.

Until then, VR gear has to become more than a niche purchase and find its way into more households. The NFL, NBA and other sports leagues surely intend to make the investments in back-end technology that will help them be ready for that day.

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About The Author

Albert McKeon

Freelance Writer

Albert McKeon covers technology, health, business, politics and entertainment. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter for 16 years on the staffs of The Telegraph (N.H.) and Boston Herald, winning the New England Press Association’s Journalist of the Year award and other honors. He now writes as a freelancer for several magazines and news outlets, and creates content for organizations such as Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston College.

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