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VR Reinventing Social Sport Experience

By: Adam Earnheardt Ph.D.


Two tickets on StubHub for the Steelers-Bengals games set us back $350. Parking was $60. Figure in $150 for gas, food and drinks, and the total cost for an afternoon at Heinz Field was more than $550.

That was the least expensive game of the season.

My wife and I are sports fans, and we crave the stadium experience. But the discretionary income of our middle-class lifestyle affords only two or three games a season.

Of course, there are other costs: baby sitters, commute to the stadium, obnoxiously intoxicated fans (both friend and foe).

For some fans, access to the stadium experience is both physically and financially out of reach. For other fans, the stadium experience is simply undesirable, regardless of the sport. As ticket, parking and other prices skyrocket, fans look for other options for viewing.

Watching at home on a large, high-definition screen is an option, but it lacks the social experience of the stadium. The sports bar is another option, but tends to favor those who want to drink, eat and interact with inebriated fans.

Fans who want the social experience without leaving home soon will have the next best thing: the virtual experience. Virtual reality, or VR, is no longer the stuff of science-fiction films and television. VR is – for lack of a better word – reality, thanks in large part to the innovations of pioneering startups all over the world.

Like the stadium experience, VR is inaccessible for the typical fan. Headsets and access are costly, but that hasn’t stopped the NFL and other leagues from beta testing the sports viewing experience.

Like those large, high-definition screens, it won’t be long before VR devices are financially accessible.

There are a few big players in the VR field, including one of Facebook’s newest acquisition, Oculus. However, one of the rising stars in the VR sports arena is NextVR.

During the 2015 NFL season, NextVR recorded three games. At the Super Bowl “fan experience” convention, fans watched those games in VR from different angles. They were recordings, but NextVR is already offering VR livestreams.

NextVR livestreamed the opening game of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. They’re already working with Fox Sports to offer VR streams for NASCAR. During March Madness, they livestreamed the entire Big East tournament.

It’s just the tip of the VR sports iceberg.

According to NextVR, they have 23 patents granted or pending for their VR tech that focus on content, delivery, transmission and playback. NextVR claims to be “capable of transmitting live high definition, three- dimensional virtual reality content ... delivering a completely immersive and lifelike experience.”

Like ticket prices, the cost of VR tech is out of range for most fans. However, the market is poised to explode in the next few years. Evidence for this is found on Angel List, a site that links tech startups with tech investors.

Last month, the list of VR startups on Angel List included more than 400 new VR ventures with an average valuation of $5.2 million.

The technology is here; it’s expensive, and we’re just getting a taste for how big it can be for the sports fan experience.

Better yet, it looks like a real solution for fans who want the social sports experience, but who can’t (or won’t) go to the stadium.

Dr. Adam Earnheardt is chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn and on his blog at www.adamearn.com.


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