The Apple Vision Pro is here. Football ain’t ready.

Trajectory is a new series from Joan Westenberg focusing on tech, economics and culture in sports - with an emphasis on the NFL. Subscribe to The Index Plus for $7 a month to access the weekly Trajectory post, along with all Medium Membership pieces and exclusive content.

In the pivotal moments of Super Bowl LVIII, Patrick Mahomes delivered a key 3-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman in overtime, propelling the Kansas City Chiefs to a thrilling 25-22 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. The win secured the Chiefs their second consecutive Super Bowl title and marked their third championship in five years, cementing their status as a modern NFL dynasty.

Tens of millions of spectators were captivated by the game, showcasing Mahomes' remarkable ability to lead comebacks on the grandest stage. And for a select few fans, it was the first opportunity to watch the Super Bowl in Apple's new Vision Pro VR headset. But without an experience tailor-made for the latest tech, reviews of the experience of simply having a bigger screen to watch in isolation haven't been positive. The glory of the game's VR immersion has, apparently, paled compared to a plasma screen with hot wings and a few mates. 

Technology shapes how we view sports. Radio changed our relationship to football. So did TV, the internet, streaming, and Podcasts. The NFL has embraced this early on, actively choosing partnerships to enrich broadcasts and the gameday vibe. Empty stadiums during COVID posed new challenges no past season has seen. But with Microsoft's help, the NFL energised fans through virtual connections. The "Fan Mosaic" put fans' video feeds on the Jumbotron and TV broadcasts using Microsoft Teams, helping recreate the stadium atmosphere at home.

This push into virtual fan integration is only the first phase of a transformational shift in sports media - one with implications that could fundamentally redefine viewer expectations, spectatorship business models, and our ideas about what constitutes a sport.

The Apple Vision Pro drop has restarted public excitement about VR sports. The PGA, MLB, and NBA launched native apps alongside the Vision Pro, and early reviews have been encouraging. But so far, football hasn't joined the fun. There's some speculation that with the Super Bowl coinciding with the Vision Pro's launch, there wasn't enough runway, bandwidth, or interest for the league to invest in the platform that early. Whether that changes for the 2024-2025 season is yet to be seen. 

So far, most NFL franchises have focused their virtual reality efforts more on recreation than trailblazing. For example, apps like the Dallas Cowboys "Cowboys VR," developed with virtual entertainment company Esports Stadium Arlington, aim primarily to simulate the in-stadium experience. Users can digitally traverse the locker rooms, emerge from the tunnels, and even preview the view from exclusive luxury suites. It's an enjoyable facsimile to drum up excitement and ticket sales through virtual worldbuilding. There are built-in VR experiences, such as "Cactus Cowboy - Fully Loaded," a VR shooter game, and "Hopalong," a cowboy simulator in virtual reality.

We have yet to see the NFL move into VR/AR game consumption - the next step in the evolution of engagement. Most current applications just don’t have the purpose-built innovation to enhance game broadcasts or leverage the unique advantages of VR as a visual medium. They succeed - to varying degrees - at creative marketing, but they don’t integrate meaningfully with core NFL products. As a result, existing ventures have struggled to transition virtual reality from a novelty to an essential component of the fan experience. The technology remains "supplementary" rather than fundamentally woven into the league's media ecosystem. And for fans investing in this tech, that’s just not enough. The NFL is a shared spectator sport. To shift a fan’s viewing paradigm, VR needs to offer more than a bigger screen.

The NFL has an opportunity to leverage emerging VR/AR technologies to transform the viewer experience and tap new revenue streams. But executing that vision requires more than digitising existing assets into virtual worlds. It demands fundamentally rethinking broadcast design, gameplay mechanics, and fan engagement models for an immersive environment. 

VR opens new possibilities for data visualisation that 2D mediums can't replicate. Players and coaches could access real-time analytics mapped onto the field, seeing heat maps, trajectories, and predictions rendered directly onto their field of vision through a VR headset. Broadcasters could also overlay this data into the fan view, enriching analysis and taking us deeper into the game.

VR allows entirely new perspectives that are impossible to see in traditional broadcasts. Viewers could watch plays unfold from the quarterback's point of view, feeling the pressure of an oncoming blitz. Or they could digitally stand on the sidelines, toggle between different camera angles, focus on individual matchups, and feel the energy of stadium crowds.

Interactivity is perhaps VR's most disruptive advantage. Fans viewing from home could engage directly with the live game broadcast, selecting alternate audio feeds, voting on real-time challenge decisions, or even influencing play calling. VR opens the door to creating a metaverse-linked sports betting ecosystem, where the lines between gaming, gambling, and traditional viewership might blur.

Executing this vision requires thinking beyond the ports of existing experiences into VR. It means designing original formats that leverage VR's unique capabilities from the ground up. This likely entails partnering with gaming studios, VR developers, and interactive content creators accustomed to building virtual worlds tailored to maximise immersion.

If the NFL cracks this code, it could drive the definitive proof point showing VR's promise for transforming passive viewers into active participants. Just as radio and television fundamentally changed fandom over the last century, VR/AR might shape the next evolution in our relationship with sports. 

Despite the NFL's early hesitation, virtual reality's explosive trajectory in transforming core elements of the sports experience seems inevitable - at least for some consumers. Will Apple Vision Pro be the spark that ignites a new generation of VR/AR innovation across the league? Can gaming partnerships unlock the secret to crafting interactive broadcasts tailored to these emerging mediums? The race is on to capture fan mindshare and loyalty in a crowded entertainment landscape by raising the bar yet again for revolutionary engagement. And the winners of that contest will profoundly reorder the economics and community around sport for decades to come.

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