While fans watching this year’s Daytona 500 via traditional means saw a fantastic and historically close finish, those tech savvy and early adopter fans received an even more immersive experience through virtual reality (VR). The coverage was enabled by a new five-year deal between Fox Sports and virtual reality company, NextVR.
The Daytona coverage came on the heels of its use in January for Fox’s broadcast of the Premier Boxing Champions card that featured a championship bout between undefeated Danny Garcia and Robert Guerrero.
The sports world has long been a major benefactor and test ground for new technologies that enhance the viewer experience. The growth of the high definition (HD) television industry was driven by the massive upgrade in image quality when games were viewed on HD sets compared to standard definition. With the benefit to the consumer obvious, that leap in technology didn’t require a hard sell to consumers.
The growing use of VR, however, will likely require a greater leap of faith given benefits that are more additive than overall game-changing. As backers of 3-D technology have likely learned at this point, it’s not enough to develop new ways for fans to consume content. You have to have buy-in across the board from distribution partners, consumers, content providers, and the overall sports business world. Even then, if the experience doesn’t enhance what fans already receive, the technology is dead on arrival.
VR faces a number of hurdles in order to become the next long-lasting piece of technology that sports fans can’t do without instead of a niche for the most tech savvy consumers. While the Fox Sports relationship gives the technology access to a wide range of compelling sports programming available via the company’s networks, ensuring consumers can access that content will be paramount to its success.
Currently, NextVR has worked closely with Samsung to provide coverage via Samsung Gear headsets, which are an additional accessory that can be used with specific Samsung phones. In order to widen the base, adoption beyond a handful of phone providers will be necessary, with options for Apple’s large and loyal base of iPhone users being most notable.
Solving the problem of isolation will also be an important issue for increased adoption. Sports consumption has traditionally been communal. Removing the fan from his his/her fellow enthusiasts during the watching of an event could be a non-starter for a substantial section of consumers.
NextVR has worked with the NBA, Turner Sports and soccer, among others, to provide this immersive technology to sports fans. With additional funding support coming from media companies Time Warner and Comcast, NextVR and the future of virtual reality in sports is on solid ground. In order for it to move past the niche use seen with 3-D, VR providers will have to transform the sports experience for the masses without diminishing what people love most.
Courtney Brunious is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Associate Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.