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For Virtual Reality, Practice Is Over

While gaming dominated virtual-reality talk over the last couple of years, sports is finally emerging as a key VR category. It seems that every day brings a new VR partnership or trial centered around sports, with all major leagues experimenting.

IBB Consulting works with brands, sports teams and streaming media providers to customize VR strategies and create compelling consumer experiences. As key stakeholders continue to invest in sports-related VR content, we sought to explore early consumer attitudes toward sports consumption in VR.

IBB surveyed 500 U.S. online consumers who said that they were interested in using VR to watch live sporting events. These 500 consumers represented 8% of the U.S. online adult population.

We wanted to understand the percentage of respondents interested in consuming sports VR content as a novelty, versus on a regular basis. One-third said they would watch live sports via VR all the time if given the option. Almost half (45%) say they would like to watch VR sports at home, alone or with friends.

While VR sports fans are still interested in attending live events, nearly half of respondents said they would be interested in using the technology as a way to replicate being at the event. Other findings of note:
• 42% of respondents expressed interest in the ability to experience an event from multiple views within a virtual stadium;
• 27% were interested in the ability to virtually experience a popular or special event that might otherwise be limited by capacity;
• 28% were intrigued by the affordability that accompanied “being at the game” via VR.

Of course, a market isn’t a market if consumers aren’t willing to spend. Most respondents surveyed expressed interest in paying for content. 64% said they would pay for in-home sports VR content via an add-on to an existing subscription, PPV or an exclusive VR sports service. When thinking about complementary in-stadium experiences, 54% of respondents are willing to pay for VR as part of an increased ticket price or as an add-on purchase at the venue.

To attract spend, sports fans will need to be presented with compelling VR experiences. There is no shortage of experimentation happening in the market.

Current technology provides the opportunity to virtually recreate past events or transmit live events natively in VR, which may be the quickest way to expand adoption and social acceptance. Emerging technology may soon allow us to interact with sports content. Dynamically changing content playback would enable a choose-your-own-experience model that adjusts video playback based on user feedback.

IBB has identified three key areas of opportunity that are ripe for innovation and investment: Providing the next-generation in-home live experience; offering an enhanced in-stadium experience; and cultivating user-generated content.

Walk into any electronics store on a Sunday and they’re showing games at the highest resolution while promoting curved displays to create a greater sense of immersion. But will the next true in-home sports experience get you 10 feet away from a screen or 10 feet away from the play?

A Chance to Upsell

VR sports presents a unique opportunity to upsell a different flavor of sports to the in-home market. These offerings could become the next-generation add-on, like NFL RedZone or NBA League Pass. A differentiated experience can let consumers feel what it’s like to be in the stadium while never leaving the comforts of home. Additionally, VR packages will naturally open new dynamic advertising opportunities.

Many venues have already begun to launch sample VR experiences in Fan Zones and other public areas. These experiences are limited today as a result of an immersive form factor that has not yet earned general social acceptance and intense processing power requirements that limit where a great VR experience can be enjoyed within a venue. But as these and other barriers break down, opportunities surrounding in-seat experiences will grow.

Budgets for creating high-quality sports content are among the highest of any genre. Still, there is untapped potential within user generated content as 360-degree camera prices continue to drop while simultaneously adding a host of improved features. Streaming a “VR scene” with spatial sound over a mobile network will require more bandwidth, lower latency and new delivery technology.

As devices and networks evolve, the average sports fan will take on the role of content creator, generating volumes of sports-related VR content.

Challenges Still Loom

Per a 2016 IBB Consulting study of online consumers that expressed an interest in VR, more than 75% are willing to spend on the gear they need for an immersive VR experience. More than 25% said that they’re most interested in VR sports experiences.

The opportunity is here right now. But creating a thriving sports VR industry means solving for challenging VR issues. Paramount is the ability to capture fast-moving, high-quality content in what are traditionally large virtual environments brimming with considerable detail.

A critical point IBB Consulting emphasizes is that VR today represents the infancy of what will be a significant shift to a next-generation platform. Further, we believe creating products that integrate volumetric VR technology and artificial intelligence can revolutionize the way we experience and interact with sports.

The good news: Consumers are expressing interest and a willingness to pay based on what is already available today. With this in mind, stakeholders that are interested in this space need to start making moves now. This will be one area where sitting too long on the sidelines may mean getting left in the dust.