Virtual Reality - Football's next game-changing innovation

Virtual Reality - Football's next game-changing innovation
Technology and new media have revolutionised the way we consume sport, with fans now able to follow the action at home, or on the go, in a variety of digital and mobile formats. The nature of modern day society, however, is such that we are always hungry for the latest innovation to help us consume the things we love in a more engaging and interactive way, and football fans are no different.

Oculus (left) and Sony (right) are set to release their VR headsets in early 2016

One of the latest technological advances set to revolutionise the sporting world is Virtual Reality (VR) and fans won’t have to wait much longer for it with the likes of Sony and Oculus set to release their VR headsets in early 2016 - the latter’s efforts receiving a significant boost following their recent acquisition by Facebook. Fans will soon only require their smart phone and a compatible VR headset to be able to experience live sporting events from the comfort of their own home, whatever side of the world they are on. Imagine looking out on to Qatar’s sweltering hot turf watching your team win the World Cup whilst sitting in your slippers. The potential for ‘virtual reality’ is endless.


The 2015/16 NBA season opener between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans was the first professional match to be broadcasted in VR

The Beginning

Football clubs are constantly seeking innovative ways to maximise fan engagement through the latest various platforms available, with the likes of Real Madrid and Marseille recently partnering up with the video messaging app Snapchat. VR, however, has the potential to take these current methods of fan engagement to the next level by closing the gap even further between the fans and players. With VR technology still in its ‘infancy’, its main use has been limited to 360º videos with the likes of Manchester City introducing a 360º camera in the Etihad Stadium’s tunnel, giving fans from around the world the opportunity to see behind the scenes footage of the players during match days. As VR technology becomes more widely available, and the software becomes more advanced, the potential uses will increase exponentially.

The NBA were the first major sport organisation to embrace this potential with their Samsung partnership aimed at bringing the courtside experience to Samsung’s Gear VR, and resulted in the 2015/16 NBA season opener between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans being the first professional match to be broadcasted in VR.  As groundbreaking as this unique experience was, it did bring out a lot of the software’s technical issues, and emphasized that VR is still very much in its early stages.  The potential, however, is definitely still there and as software evolves the quality of the VR experience will only continue to break new grounds.


Dallas Cowboys are just one of the four NFL teams using 'virtual reality' to help players and coaches anaylse plays on the field 

An Innovation for the Coaches

VR technology goes beyond just enhancing the fan experience. With sporting success so often defined by the smallest of margins, coaches have never been more dedicated to exploring how technology can take athletes to the next level and VR has the potential to do exactly that. The learning development of athletes becomes a lot smoother when they can recreate a realistic game experience, for example, practicing in game speed, seeing the depth of field, and even hearing the crowd noise; all while avoiding the risk of injury. The use of VR for coaching has so far predominantly been picked up by American Football with Stanford University and NFL teams such as the Dallas Cowboys using it; however the fact that VR can be tailored to any scenario means that it can potentially be adopted by all sports.

One company using VR technology to enhance coaching methods in football is Beyond Sports who build VR simulations of real soccer matches, based on real match data and have worked with a number of major clients such as KNVB (Dutch FA) and Ajax. One example of their work was introducing a unique Google Glass solution with live video analysis to the Dutch National team’s training camp in the run up to the 2014 World Cup. Working with this calibre of client shows that football is slowly starting to embrace VR with it potentially being used across all major football leagues and federations in the next few years.


Virtual reality will help Manchester United engage with their reported global fan base of 659m (2013) 

A potential 'gold mine'

With the vastly enhanced ticketing and in-game marketing opportunities the technology provides, VR is a potential gold mine to the football market. Virtual Reality has the potential to offer sport teams the chance to sell tickets beyond their stadium capacity with the introduction of ‘virtual tickets’, where fans will pay to watch the game on their VR headset.  Manchester United, for example, has a reported fan base of 659m people (2013), the majority of which will never have a chance to watch a game at Old Trafford.  With VR, however, United can monetize this enormous global fan base with supporters from all over the world able to experience games such as the Manchester derby and those famous Champions League nights all from the comfort of their own home, providing they have a smart phone and a VR headset.  If carried out effectively, ‘virtual tickets’ have the potential to increase clubs’ revenues significantly.

Another way in which VR can help generate revenue growth is through the enhanced sponsorship opportunities it brings to the football market. Rights holders will be able to sell VR sponsorship to brands that will then be able to leverage advertisement banners in stadiums based on regional demographics, catering to specific target audiences. For example fans who are watching a VR Premier League match broadcasted in Asia will have products aimed at the Asian market being advertised on the banners throughout the VR experience.


02's 'Wear the Rose' Virtual Reality experience

A Sponsors Dream

Just as clubs can monetize VR with virtual tickets, VR can also be monetized by brands and clubs through sponsorship and advertising. The evolution of VR has the potential to transform the way brands and clubs advertise and engage with their consumers, offering them an innovative and immersive way of showcasing their products to consumers.

An example of a brand utilising VR to engage their consumers is O2 with their ‘Wear the Rose’ VR campaign  that has seen over 35,000 fans trying out the VR experience. The aim was to create a fan experience that brings O2 customers closer to the England rugby team by placing them in the centre of one of their training sessions. This experience was an entirely new level of fully immersive virtual reality that ensured the user felt part of the national team, bringing down some of the barriers that are often constructed between what the fans see on the pitch and all the hard work behind the scenes. The campaign is still ongoing, with its nationwide tour giving O2 customers unique access to the cutting edge VR experience and in turn associating the O2 brand with connecting them to the England rugby team.

O2's head of sports sponsorship, Gareth Griffiths, believes this form of advertising will continue to grow through sports, stating that "VR can provide a truly unique insight into the world of elite sports by allowing fans to be immersed in something that they might not normally get the chance to experience".   Griffiths’ innovative work has been reflected in the huge success of the ‘Wear the Rose’ campaign, however, only time will tell if brands will utilise VR to its full potential, as O2 have done so effectively.


The quality of the VR experience is set to make significant progress in the next few years

The future of VR in football

Virtual reality has the potential to revolutionise the way we consume sport by offering a completely new immersive fan experience that is an easier and potentially cheaper alternative to attending a game. This VR alternative, however, is still a long way from offering fans an experience that will compete with attending the actual game. The current gap existing between the virtual and the reality, however, is only going to be reduced as VR technology becomes more sophisticated. This of course does come with its own consequences.  Clubs have never faced more competition from broadcasters providing alternatives to watching matches live at the stadium.  If VR technology does advance to a stage where fans have a reliable alternative to attending stadiums, this could have a detrimental effect to stadium atmospheres, merchandising revenues and local businesses who rely on the increased footfall from match days.

An existing issue of VR is that people go to stadiums for more than just the view; they go for the atmosphere, the social interaction and the sense of being at a stadium which VR, in its current early stages, struggles to offer. Based on recent feedback, the current VR experience can be seen as a lonely one as fans are unable to engage with people around them which for many fans, makes VR, in its current form, a profoundly inferior experience as engagement with people around you when watching football is a key part of the match experience.  Over time, however, VR will evolve with new software development designed at tackling this issue of lack of atmosphere and social interaction as well as offering immersive social media engagement.

These issues, however, don’t hide the prospective commercial gain that VR brings to the football market with its potential to significantly increase club match day revenues as well as offering brands an innovative and immersive way to advertise their products.

Even though we have come a long way in recent years with VR technology, there is still a long way to go before VR can fulfil its huge potential of revolutionising fan consumption, coaching and sponsorship of the beautiful game. When technology becomes more advanced VR will be able to explore how to fulfil this potential and how it can impact the football industry for the better.  For now though, sitting in the freezing cold, half-time pies and late night journeys home will just have to do. 


WATCH: Sander Schouten discusses virtual reality's power to change the football industry at the Soccerex Global Convention 2015


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