Final Four Tickets Out of Reach? How About a Virtual Seat?

Robyn Beck, AFP, Getty Images

Virtual-reality headsets—like the one worn by a game player at the 2014 International CES, a consumer-electronics and technology exhibition in Las Vegas—could one day bring a front-row experience of college athletic events into fans’ living rooms. Athletics officials are excited about the prospects such technologies raise, but also wary.
April 03, 2014

Floor-level seats for this weekend’s Final Four men's basketball tournament are listing for as much as $7,000 apiece. But some marketers are betting on a technology that could offer fans a front-row experience for a fraction of that cost.

"Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game," Mark Zuckerberg said last week, "just by putting on goggles in your home."

Mr. Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, made that statement as he announced plans to spend $2-billion to buy a company that makes virtual-reality headsets. So far the company has tailored its products to video-game developers. But Mr. Zuckerberg believes they could one day be used for live sporting events.

Sports-marketing experts say it could be years before that happens, and the idea could face opposition—including from fans who might not be interested in wearing a bulky headset.

But some college officials are excited about the promise, if not a little wary of losing fans who would still buy the actual seats.

"I’m sure we’ll all move from seeing this as a threat to viewing it as a potential enhancement," said Chris Fuller, a senior associate athletics director at the University of Tennessee. "But at some point, you worry that the alternative experience could end up being more desirable than the real one."

Virtual reality has been a "long-running dream," one tech writer said last week, that has mostly failed to make the leap from Star Trek fantasy into Best Buy shopping carts.

But Michael Thompson Jr., a senior associate athletics director at the University of Mississippi who has researched the fan experience, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see virtual technologies tested within the next year or two in college sports. And he sees the Final Four, the NCAA’s marquee event, as the perfect place to try it.

Shaping the ‘Virtual’ Experience

Sports marketers say headsets like those made by Oculus VR, the company Facebook plans to purchase, could allow fans to "virtually" experience the game from different angles around the arena: behind their favorite team’s bench, above the backboard, or inside the locker room.

Many of those viewing angles are already possible, thanks to television networks that have placed cameras in dozens of locations. In some games, a lens even travels over the court attached to a computer-controlled cable system.

At this year’s BCS National Championship Game in football, ESPN offered fans a variety of viewing experiences on its many channels, using different camera angles and a mix of analysis and commentary. (On one station, several college coaches broke things down with X’s and O’s, while other channels featured play-by-play broadcasts from the participating teams.)

The difference with virtual seats is that fans could control their location in the stadium, moving around at their discretion rather than letting TV producers call the shots.

Nascar, the auto-racing business, is viewed as a leader in giving its fans access behind the scenes—something that college marketers are hoping to emulate. Some Nascar cameras are mounted inside cars' cockpits, as well as on bumpers and along the track.

During races, many Nascar fans wear special headsets that allow them to listen in on conversations between drivers and their pit crews. Fans not at the track can tune in online.

"Nascar was so innovative in opening up access to what used to be privileged conversations," said Mr. Thompson, who did work for clients in the stock-car association before taking a job in college sports. "We haven’t figured out how to marry up the technology as well with our games."

It’s unlikely that college coaches will let anyone listen in on their play calls. But some college officials say they are exploring ideas that would give fans more entree to their teams. Among the ideas: providing regular camera access to the locker room for pregame and halftime speeches, and working with television partners to offer exclusive sideline cameras and "helmet cams" for the quarterbacks. Colleges are also considering opportunities to let fans predict the next play during games.

Keeping Up Attendance

Athletics officials hope such moves will boost TV ratings, but they are also focused on making sure they don’t lose gate revenue as a result.

Attendance shouldn’t be a problem at this weekend’s Final Four, at AT&T Stadium near Dallas. The NCAA says more than 77,000 seats have already been sold (average price: $279 at face value).

But in recent years, attendance in many big-time basketball programs has declined. According to a 2012 Chronicle analysis, nearly one of every five Division I men’s programs saw a drop of 20 percent or greater in regular-season attendance from 2009 to 2012. This season, it was hard to watch a postseason conference tournament without seeing big patches of empty seats.

Some programs are starting to think about shrinking the seating capacity in their arenas, while others are looking for ways to provide better amenities for the average fan—not just those at the premium level.

But colleges realize that, no matter how much they invest in infrastructure, the remote control is a powerful adversary.

"Visually, it’s hard to compete against the TV experience," said Mr. Thompson, of Ole Miss. But it’s up to colleges, he said, to keep marketing the magic of being in the building. "The energy that happens inside a stadium or arena is something that’s powerful and real and that people in this business have got to capitalize on."