Focal Point VR demonstrates the power of the VR experience with a live production from the IMG Champions Tennis

Best viewed live and in high definition, sport has long been considered immune from many of the pressures facing linear TV. However, young people are switching off from TV sport as part of a drop in average audiences of nearly a tenth in six years, analysts have claimed.

Recent research by Ampere Analysis found that 18 to 24-year-olds, the younger end of the so-called ‘millennial’ age group, were 17% less likely to identify sport as their favourite form of programming than the general population.

At the same time viewing figures for TV sport are down on both sides of the Atlantic. It has been widely reported in the US that broadcast audiences for NFL matches have dropped across all major networks while UK sports channels, including Sky Sports, BT Sport and Eurosport reveals 2016 average weekly viewing is down by 9% compared to 2010

The data should ring alarm bells for pay-TV operators that rely on sport as the main draw for subscribers.

Ampere suggested that the rise of online streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube, as well as social media, was providing stronger competition for young people’s attention.

This should come as no surprise. As a demographic, millennials have become accustomed to being more in control over how and when they consume TV content and, as a result, streaming services have grown in popularity with this audience more than any other.

“With an ageing fan base, broadcasters must get their eyes back on the ball if they are to retain – and grow – this highly desirable audience,” says the analyst.

There is a way in which sports rights holders and live event content owners can innovate a way out of the impasse.

Streaming an event live in 360° to smartphone apps and virtual reality headsets offers a fundamentally different experience and what’s more, one that puts the viewer in control.

“VR video offers a genuine alternative way of consuming video,” says Ian Baverstock, Co-Founder, Focal Point VR. “It is different from conventional video recording in the way people perceive it. You lose some advantages of editing and action replay and the ability to zoom in and out of a picture. In effect, you lose the directed experience. But what you get in return is a feeling of authenticity and presence which is of tremendous appeal to a cynical youth audience who don’t value content served when someone else is in control.”

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Instead of being mediated through someone else’s perspective, VR is about being live and present at the event.

“It’s about having the freedom to look around and see what is really going on,” says Baverstock. “Offering consumers, and especially millennials, the chance to be part of something live yet under their own control is extremely valuable.”

To help prove the point, this week’s matches from the IMG Champions Tennis, including the final on Sunday December 4, are being live streamed in 360-degrees to a specially created app available to a select audience of broadcasters, sponsors and technologists.

The season ending finale of the ATP Champions Tour features some of the greatest players ever including John McEnroe and Pat Rafter competing indoors in front of a packed house in the awe-inspiring Royal Albert Hall.

Viewers will be able to switch between multiple streams for different perspectives on the live action much as they would access a Red Button on TV but all without leaving the VR stream.

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“We are not editorialising in any way,” explains Paul James, Co-Founder and Head of Production. “This is a viewer-based experience where they are the editor. The viewer makes the decision about when and where they want to watch. Our role is to make sure that when consumers do come to VR for the first time they experience such a ‘Wow’ that they will want to return for more.”

The event is also a prime opportunity to experiment with various aspects of what is still an emerging technology. Three different rigs will be arrayed around the court ranging from a stereo pair for 3D capture, a GoPro mounted rig for output to YouTube and a high-end system comprising three Blackmagic Micro Studio Camera 4K outputting dual streams of 4K and 6K.

Signals from the latter configuration will be fed into Focal Point VR’s own encoding, stitching and packing solution and delivered [by content delivery network/over the internet] to the app and also to an embeddable HTML5 player.

Longer term, the ability to share the experience with friends and family will be essential to the success of live VR. Developments by companies including Facebook are already working to crack the issue by introducing avatars and voice into the live feed.

“Ultimately you want to be able to share the experience of attending an event virtually with a member of your family who may live many miles away. While this capability is unlikely to be available in the first commercial launches of VR, the technology will soon offer the chance for both of you to teleport to the same experience. A step even beyond that is to enhance the ability to move around within and interact with the VR world, for example by being able to point rather than just look. Our technology allows broadcasters to engage with consumers on a completely new level.”