Feschuk: The future of sports will look like this

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

What changes will technology bring to sports? Will players start tweeting from the bench? Will everyone soon be watching games in 3D? Will the Cleveland Browns finally stop sucking if we turn them off and back on again?

The future of sports tech was the subject of a day-long conference in Las Vegas earlier this month—part of the annual Consumer Electronics Show. It featured some big names, including the commissioners of the NBA and MLB, and a fruit tray that was, to be honest, a little honeydew-heavy for a marquee event. Also, Shaq was there for some reason.

The conference gave panellists the opportunity to say we live in a time of “disruption,” which is the word to say if you want to get asked to join a panel about technological change. It was also a chance for men in suits to talk about “consuming sports”—which, by the way, is how these executives talk. “I love consuming sports!” the head of a tech firm actually said. Someone should let him know: This is not how human people speak. Very rarely do you sit down at a bar and overhear a couple of buddies saying:

“Did you consume the game last night?”

“Oh, man, I consumed and defecated it!”

Based on the panel discussions, here are predictions for our sports future:

PREDICTION No. 1: Over the next one to three years, there will be an explosion in the use of Health data from wearable technology

During the 2014 World Cup, I was amazed to discover the vast distances the various players had travelled in order to bore me. But that’s just the beginning. Formula E, a race series that uses electric cars, already broadcasts the heart rates of its drivers—and their loved ones. Please, I beg of you: No one inform the people who run Sunday Night Football. “Quite a pass there by Aaron Rodgers—let’s go down to Michelle with an update on Olivia Munn’s vital signs and bladder level!”

On the upside, we’ll soon know if “icing the kicker” actually increases his pulse. We’ll get data that conveys the force with which a player is tackled or checked. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll all get to share in the thrill of witnessing Jim Caldwell’s one heartbeat per minute.

PREDICTION No. 2: Over the next three to five years, sports networks will need to revamp or eliminate the traditional highlight show

ESPN’s SportsCenter was likened to music videos—a cultural force that faded to the fringes. The consensus is that younger sports fans get clips from online sources, so they can share and “like” them. This is a problem because SportsCenter fills so much of the ESPN schedule. On the bright side, there’s never been a better time to pitch my new show: Stephen A. Smith Yells at Inanimate Objects for Eight Hours. Episode one: cauliflower and stemware.

PREDICTION No. 3: Over the next seven to 10 years, virtual reality will emerge as a dominant way
of viewing sports

As the CEO of NextVR himself acknowledged at the conference, “We are still in the brick-cellphone phase of virtual reality.” But I tried it and it’s getting good. Honest. Another decade or so and we’ll need only to slip on a stylish pair of Oakleys to experience a game from the front row.

Everyone agrees this could be a “game changer.” Which makes it kind of weird that no one on the panels seemed too concerned about potential decreases in ticket sales or broadcast viewership. At one point, a guy from Verizon casually said, “It just means the traditional model is going to have to change.”

Oh, is that all? We’ll just need to completely reinvent the revenue model on which the entire professional-sports industry is based? Here’s betting that if these sports executives were wearing sensors, we’d discover more than a few heart rates on the rise.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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