Will virtual reality ever become…reality?

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Virtual reality is being pegged as the future of sports consummation. Photo via SportTechie

Virtual reality is being pegged as the future of sports consummation. Photo via SportTechie

After a holiday season in which virtual reality headsets began to infiltrate the common home, teams are just beginning to realize the impact this technology could possibly have on both fan interaction and their bottom line.

It was reported by Sports Business Journal that the Phoenix Suns have turned to VR as a tool to wow their full season-ticket base into renewal. Based on the Suns play this season, renewal is a hard bargain to strike, but presenting a three-minute VR video complete with practice footage and a special shout from Devin Booker could jazz up a fan base looking for every reason to cheer.

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The Suns’ use of VR illustrates a practical use for the technology — renewing full season-ticket members is a primary focus for any franchise because of the revenue at stake — but does not touch on the ceiling of its capabilities. When you speak to people in the industry, a general theme emerges: We still haven’t fully figured out what this is, but the possibilities will be endless.

“I am fascinated by VR for several reasons,” said Sam Renaut, Assistant Director of Arizona State’s Sports Law and Business program. “Primarily, it should serve as a source of theoretically unlimited revenue. It is limited only by the available bandwidth at the arena. It opens doors for new sponsorships, and it brings the fans inside the game.”

There is a sense that someday teams will be able to sell their seating inventory multiple times over with VR. A traditional seat — let’s say section 102, row G, seat 12 — can be sold via ticket, but VR could allow teams to lease out the perspective of sitting in that same seat to fans perched on their favorite recliner. In this world, fans will be purchasing perspectives rather than experiences, and teams will be able to carve their way to a seemingly limitless revenue stream.

A hiccup with this development is the effect it could have on the motivations of consumers to purchase the in-arena experience. Why would a consumer pay a premium for an experience that is accessible from the comfort of their own home? To combat the potential demise of their in-arena inventory, teams — along with the players — are going to have to get creative with their implementation of VR.

“I think there will be two parallel experiences,” said Bill Sutton, who runs the sport consultant company Bill Sutton & Associates. “You might offer the fan at home a center court seat to watch the game from, but in the arena, you might watch the game from Chris Paul’s or Stephen Curry’s perspective. You have to create simultaneous but unique experiences.”

In order to charge a premium price, you must present a premium experience, and providing fans the opportunity to watch the game from the perspective of their favorite point guard, quarterback, or pitcher would serve as a differentiator from the at-home crowd. (I just had a daydream about watching a game from the perspective of DeAndre Jordan and encountering the feeling of flight after nabbing an alley oop out of the air. Yikes.)

Of course, as with all technology, there are some detractors. What happens when there are technical difficulties and fans do not get the experience that they paid for? Do present-day arenas possess enough bandwidth to withhold thousands of patrons using VR at once? Watching the game from the perspective of your favorite player, coach, or referee sounds great in theory, but what logistical challenges go into that process? Is risking the peace of the live audience already in place — and all the revenue they generate — too ambitious of a venture to pursue?

“Will it impact the live audience? Maybe, but it’s too soon to say so — we will broach the topic again in five years,” said Dr. Brandon Brown, Clinical Assistant Professor of Sport Management at New York University.

Five years is a fair timetable to check back in on the progression of VR. The possibilities may be endless, but they must first be feasible to hold any real weight going forward.