Virtual reality is the future of soccer broadcasting and it's already here

NEW YORK – In a lot of ways, professional soccer is as healthy as it’s ever been. Record revenues are hauled in seemingly every year. Broadcast rights have skyrocketed from the Premier League to Major League Soccer to the Chinese Super League and seemingly every place in between. Companies are falling over themselves to sign even richer sponsorship deals. And, thanks to UEFA’s initiatives, net debt in Europe’s 20 biggest leagues has been cut down by a third since 2009.

But somewhere way out on the horizon looms a potential problem: disengaged viewing.

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Soccer is aging well – much better than some other sports. You can watch a game in less than two hours, the action is continuous and it’s easily repackaged for mobile viewing. It’s more captivating than a lot of traditional American sports for today’s children. Yet even soccer has to reckon with modernity. Pay close attention, and you’ll see that very few people actually watch an entire game undistracted. And the younger the viewer, the less attention is paid.

Kids worldwide remain very much interested in soccer, but they often see games in quick glances away from their smartphones. They consume the sport mostly through highlights, in video games and on social media. It’s a cultural experience as much as a sporting one. And that will eventually become problematic for advertisers and, consequently, rights holders.

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So what’s the answer? Probably virtual reality.

Not just VR in its own right – which can place you in any stadium in the world, and hypothetically anywhere within that stadium – but VR integrated with all the peripheral media now pulling attention away from the sport itself.

“Because we’re so ADD about things, even if you put somebody in the first row [through VR], after five or 10 minutes, people are like ‘I need to do something else. I need to check my phone. I need to check the weather. Whatever,’ ” says André Lorenceau, founder and CEO of LiveLike VR. “People in general are that way because of the rise of smartphones. So a VR experience that puts you in the middle of sports needs to not separate you from your phone, or separate you from your friends or the rest of the world. You have to be able to be engaged constantly.”

LiveLike is one of the companies trying to fill this emerging need, pulling the various distractions into VR broadcasts of live sports games. It says it’s the first platform that allows you, through increasingly affordable VR goggles – some models of which just fit around your phone – to watch live sports with friends who are anywhere in the world. You can watch from a virtual suite up by the halfway line or wherever else in the stadium a camera has been set up.

LiveLike broadcasted the MLS Cup Final live in December and showed 20 highlights of the SuperBowl on Sunday. It also did the Mexico-Venezuela game at last summer’s Copa America Centenario as well as several college football games, all in conjunction with Fox Sports. It has broadcast several Premier League games for Manchester City that weren’t made available to the public, as a proof of concept for the club.

Once you’re inside the broadcaster’s app, you have access to replays from all the angles, instant stats, heat maps, lineups, player information, DVR capability and even a shop for game-related merchandise. LiveLike, which doesn’t have its own rights or streams, serves as a facilitator for broadcast companies, turning their games into VR on their behalf by equipping existing 4K with fish-eye lenses.

But the upside is much broader. With the right partnerships down the line, it’s quite possible that social media feeds, messenger apps and even games could all be pulled into the VR broadcast. The possibilities are fairly endless.

“In future features that we’re working on, there’s like borderline no limit to where we can go there,” Lorenceau says. “There’s no limits to us integrating social media feeds, communication with the outside world in multiple ways, alternative content outside of the soccer – we can have games playing while having interviews with people, 360-degree videos of fans. Because we deal in the virtual world, it’s kind of limitless what you can have in your virtual suite. You don’t need atoms.”

Essentially, you could do all the things you now do on two or three screens within your goggles, especially once the technology for text input improves – probably through hand controllers.

LiveLike was founded just two years ago and won the inaugural NFL Tech Crunch for sports tech startups a year ago – attended by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Jon Bon Jovi, for some reason – in the viewing experience category.

Its founder Lorenceau is only 27. The charismatic French son of a psychiatrist and a business consultant, who relocated to the U.S. when he was a teenager, has an energy like a bouncy ball stuck inside one of those machines that shakes paint cans. And if speech and stream of consciousness were subject to the speed limits, Lorenceau would have lost his license a long time ago.

“I’m glad I could meet you, I almost died this weekend,” he says quickly and casually at LiveLike’s shared workspace in the Financial District of Manhattan. “I was in Breckenridge in Colorado and had a minor pulmonary edema. I legitimately almost died. I was skiing too high up. I’m actually not fully, fully recovered. I had to take a bunch of Advil before you showed up. But this is what you do, startup stuff.”

After graduating from the University of Texas, Lorenceau was already working in VR when he spotted a gap in the user experience of live sports. Most companies focused on the technology, resolution and compression.

“Nobody was working on harnessing the big interactivity, the big social capabilities of virtual reality on the software side,” he says. “So we decided to build a prototype. We showed it to a broadcaster. They thought it was great. So we said, ‘OK, let’s try it.’ ”

Now, LiveLike has 32 employees in offices in New York, Paris and India, has raised $6 million in two rounds of investment and counts the mighty Creative Artists Agency and former NBA Commissioner David Stern – “He’s been super helpful,” Lorenceau says – among its investors.

They work furiously on the future.

“Give me 1,000 people and I’d know what each one of them would be doing,” Lorenceau says. “Right now, we have nine hundred things we’re doing and the problem isn’t what can we do but what do we prioritize for? We’re talking to clients in every market [around the world] – freaking everywhere. 2017 is probably going to be a very big year for live sports in VR.”

There is so much capability left to build. It’s hardly inconceivable to watch games from the spider cam suspended above the field at major games with a 360-degree view. If – or once – the technology comes along where cameras get small enough to attach to a player and stable enough not to make you feel sick watching it, you could hypothetically watch the game from the perspective of any player on the field. Or the referee. Or the assistant-referee who keeps on waving that offside flag. Or the goalpost. Or the manager. Or, well, you get the idea.

For advertisers, VR offers the chance to put themselves squarely inside the user experience, rather than being relegated to background noise or something to be fast-forwarded through. In the suite, a soda can be put unobtrusively on the coffee table in front of you. During the MLS Cup Final, an Audi was parked in the back of the suite. During one college football broadcast, an X-wing Starfighter flew over the stadium to promote an upcoming Star Wars movie.

Down on the field, the user can already watch the game, moving through the stadium to find the best vantage points with friends. And, in the future, he could interact with his companions or anyone else; make a GIF of a nice play and post it on, say, Twitter; re-enact the penalty shootout in a video game; and shop for the away team’s new alternative jerseys.

All within the goggles. All without ever losing sight of the game.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.