Can Technology Bring Back Arena Sports?

Mark Cuban, for one, is considering a lot of different ideas, including Twitch

Each year, I try to attend one or two Mets Games. I’d do more but with parking and concessions, the stadium games get expensive. Plus, I can see the action and replays better on TV, anyway.

People watching sports
 Lifewire / Nusha Ashjaee

Still, there is something magical about being in a ballpark. The human energy of 45,000 people all chanting, screaming, cheering, and groaning while you consume what in any other situation would be an awful hotdog, is exciting and irreplaceable.

I know sports fans who attend two or three Yankee games a month, every Jet home game in New Jersey, or all the Rangers ice action in Madison Square Garden. The stadiums and arenas where they attended those games have been empty for months—as we soothe ourselves with virtual sports—and will likely remain so as the U.S. unsteadily emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.

Even as we do, social distancing rules will remain and large, tight gatherings typical of NBA, MLB, and NFL games will be all but impossible.

baseball game
I don't know when we'll see stadium crowds like this again. TBS

Even team sport practices are fraught. Soccer’s MLS is cooking up plans for “individual workouts,” and the NBA has a plan to allow no more than four players at a time to practice at team facilities. If teams are still concerned about how they can allow teammates to gather in large groups, the idea of thousands of fans close enough to reach out and touch the players must be terrifying.

Reaching First

Last month, President Donald Trump insisted, “We have to get our sports back” and then announced a sports advisory committee tasked with figuring out how to revive the comatose sports economy quickly and safely.

The commission is a who’s who of the sports world including league commissioners from the NBA, MLB, PGA Tour, NFL, MLS, and NHL, leaders of UFC and WWE, and a handful of team owners including Mavericks basketball team owner, Shark Tank star, and serial entrepreneur Mark Cuban.

I’ve known Cuban since his tech startup years (that’s how he made his billions) and know he’s smart, tech savvy, and a frenemy of Donald Trump. Cuban had even briefly floated the idea of running against Trump on the upcoming presidential election. However, when I asked him a few weeks ago if he was in fact joining the commission, he confirmed the appointment and his participation.

Since then there’s been little news out of the commission, but with states slowly reopening businesses and looking to return to some semblance of normal, the question of how professional sporting events fit in is ever-present.

When I asked Cuban over Twitter how it was going, he offered just an “it’s going ok,” which I took as a somewhat reassuring sign.

MLB Homepage
A season on hold. MLB

Trick Play

However, the reality that few sports leagues seem to be grappling with is exactly what live sporting events will look like in the coming months. Yes, there’s a chance that these events could be played in front of empty stadiums, but I don’t think that’s the go-forward plan.

Ticketing sites for MLS, WWE, and MLB still show seating maps without any social distancing guidelines in place. There’s no way, at least in the early going, that these stadiums can sell side-by-side seats to complete strangers. My assumption is that you’ll be able to buy a group of seats if you can prove that all those attending are coming from the same address.

This assumes that sports can even let people back into stadiums before the end of this year. That’s a big if. I began to wonder what kinds of alternatives the commission is looking at for the NBA to resume play, for the baseball season to finally start, and for the NFL to hit the field in August.

Mark Cuban and Lance Ulanoff
I last saw Mark Cuban (left) last year at SXSW in Austin. Neither one of us could've envisioned what the world would be like a year later.   (Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff)

I sent Cuban a Twitter DM asking if the commission is discussing digital ways to put a socially distant audience closer to the action when sports return, but fans still cannot (at least in large numbers)?

I wanted to know if Cuban and company were investigating technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) and looking at hardware that could deliver haptic feelings (rumble of the crowd), and even scent diffusers to reproduce the smell of stadiums and courts in homes. Could they work with third-party partners to sell high-end sound systems (for 3D surround that puts you near the action)? What about a deal to start selling team-branded 4K TVs?

I admit, these are a lot of ideas and some might even be considered harebrained (the stadium smell thing could go very wrong). Cuban, perhaps being kind, didn’t dismiss any of my ideas and wrote that, at least where his Mavericks broadcasts are concerned, “We have used and tried and continue to evaluate all the above.” Then he added that it’s “more likely we add AR to broadcasts.”

While Cuban doesn't know if others on the commission are considering similar options, I'd be surprised if they weren't.

Setting the Goal Posts

Last year, CBS introduced on-field augmented reality to the Super Bowl. It used a special hand-held camera (I wondered at the time if it was just an iPhone X feed), then blended live play action with 3D graphics and animations. Soon after, teams started introducing 5G to stadiums which enhanced the AR opportunities for fans with 5G and AR-capable phones.

Without fans, though, the question is how AR translates to an in home-experience. I don’t see sports lovers getting any more out of the AR delivered to them during their home game viewing than they would from doing so in the stadium.

I admit, these are a lot of ideas and some might even be considered harebrained (the stadium smell thing could go very wrong).

Personally, I think VR is our best bet for putting people virtually back in the seats. An immersive, 360-degree view with stereo headphones—and a safe space to jump up and down like the crazed fan you are—would be almost like attending the actual game.

A good VR headset like the Oculus Quest is not cheap ($399), but as I noted above, neither are game tickets. If you attend four professional sports games a year, the headset basically pays for itself.

Team Action

If you work in any kind of media, you know that you can no longer count on your audience to come to you, you have to be wherever they are. This is why networks are now streaming through your set-top box and to your phone.

“I see us creating multiple streams and customizing it by audience type,” Cuban told me over Twitter, adding “a Twitch-type feed, a traditional feed, etc.”

In other words, teams like Cuban's Mavericks will diversify even more to make sure you see the game where and how you want to see it.

Twitch Interface
Twitch is basically tailor made for live sporting events?.  Twitch

The idea of pro-sports on Twitch intrigued me. Obviously, it’s the go-to platform for playing and watching esports, but I’d never seen live arena sporting events on the platform. The more I thought about it, though, the more I could see the appeal.

Twitch provides multiple streams so fans can track multiple events at once (I’ve known sports fans who, before picture-in-picture, would literally stack small TVs on top of one another to watch multiple sporting events at once). It supports live comments and the ability to buy team swag, but not during games, which is something I think the Amazon-owned platform could easily adjust for live sports. There are already commentators who, intentionally or not, imitate pro sporting event commentators, right down to the play-by-play and color commentary. 

The only downside is that Twitch is not exactly immersive, and you still can’t buy hot dogs.

So What

As leagues, team owners like Cuban, and members of the President's commission grapple with the tension between wanting to refill their stadiums and the very real concern of spiking another COVID-19 outbreak, technology could bridge what may be a temporary gap between pro athletes and their adoring fans.

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