There’s a certain amount of electricity to being at a sporting event live. The way the crowd seems to rise, as if on tiptoes, to watch a critical moment. Being there is something inherently different about a live fan experience versus watching on television.
Virtual reality technology attempts to bridge that gap. By allowing fans to control the camera and get a 360-degree view of the action, it feels more like an authentic live experience. Or at least, that’s the idea.
Companies developing this technology like ALLie and STRIVR can never recreate the hold-your-breath feeling of those big moments, even with a live stream of 360 VR. This creates a unique problem for certain sporting experience. In an arena or a stadium, what’s the advantage of having a 360-degree view when 75% of that would just be seats and fans and hot dog vendors?
But in golf, the setting around the athletes on the course, the majesty of the silhouetted trees or oceanfront scenery, are as much a part of the event as the ball and the player specifically because they’re all potentially part of the action. A player might hit those trees, or slice one onto the beach.
It makes golf ideally suited for VR.
“Golf is a sport of precision, and sometimes viewers at home miss details because of the limited viewpoint of the camera,” says ALLie CEO Dmitry Kozko. “The game of golf is also uniquely positioned for this type of technology because of the beautiful locales where these tournaments take place. Rather than an arena or ice rink, golf gives you a front row seat to stunning landscapes that you might not otherwise see.”
Last weekend, the American Century Championship, a pro-am tournament in Lake Tahoe, was streamed live on YouTube in full 360-degree VR. The Masters was streamed in VR earlier this spring, but the Lake Tahoe event is thought to be the first one streamed in full 360-degree VR.
Stars like Steph Curry, Aaron Rodgers, Justin Timberlake, Charles Barkley and others were at the tournament, making for a perfect showcase for a technology that could become part of the industry standard when it comes to the fan experience.
Turner and ESPN already produce multiple broadcasts for the Final Four and the College Football Playoff, and it’s easy to imagine that a fully personalized, 360-degree camera angle for fans could be the next evolution of the sports broadcast.
The PGA Tour seems to understand the direction the technology is going and what kind of opportunity it presents for the all important “grow the game” push.
“We do want to be first,” says senior director of PGA Tour digital content Sloane Kelley, “and it’s not just for the matter of saying ‘Oh, we’re first.’ No, it’s so that when technology like this comes out, we have a chance to an experiment because if and when it becomes adopted by a mainstream audience, we want to have all the kinks worked out.”
The Tour has partnered with STIVR to create Tour content for platforms like Oculus, and it wass the first pro sports league to have an app in the Oculus store. They were even lucky enough to be on the course when Jason Day set the course record at TPC Sawgrass earlier this year at the Players Championship.
Sawgrass is a great example of the power of VR in golf, as the 17th hole is one of the true icons in the sport. Golf fans getting a course-level view of a place like Augusta National or Pebble Beach, present a window into a world most fans will never go and the network angles can only offer so much insight into.
“The Tour is taking the right approach to virtual reality right now relative to where the industry currently sits,” says STRIVR CEO Derek Belch. “They are building a library of legitimate, high quality content that will appeal to fans of all ages as VR distribution continues to grow. The TOUR is certainly leading the way among professional leagues in this regard, and it’s fun to be a part of it all. In our opinion, this is just the beginning of some really cool stuff to come.”
Having a content library with interactive video is one thing, but a full VR broadcast could be part of golf’s future on a consistent basis.
“We’re really interested in the idea of what a live product would look like. Right now, it is very much in an experimental phase. And one of the reasons is it’s extremely difficult to capture all the action,” Kelley says, adding that camera technology hasn’t quite caught up with the idea of a full, live broadcast.
Could VR end up being like the 3-D television, a revolutionary idea that simply couldn’t be executed in a way that fit the lifestyle of mainstream audiences? Of course, and the Tour knows that.
“There’s always a risk, but I think that’s inherent in any good idea,” Kelley says. “It’s also inherent in digital. So we have to make smart decisions about where we do spend money on innovation, but we do want to make sure we’re innovating and pushing the envelope.”