Last month, following the first live streamed NFL game on Twitter, Sports Shorts posted on the new era of digital sports consumption. Less than three weeks later (on 3 October), Sky has launched its new virtual reality app. The free app is available to iPhone and Android users (or at least those who own an appropriate VR headset) and there are plans to roll it out on other platforms such as HTC Vive and PlayStation VR in the future. Sky promises to enable users to “immerse yourself in a range of 360-degree videos from the world of sport, film and arts”, prophesying that it will become “the home of high-quality virtual reality (VR) content”.

Whilst VR has been emerging for some time, its presence has been most apparent in the gaming industry, with products such as the Sony PlayStation VR amongst the most recognised on the market. VR’s entry into mainstream sports consumption and home entertainment (gaming aside) has been more piecemeal. We have seen the arrival of connected stadia, 360 degree ‘VR training sessions’, and various platforms designed to facilitate the sharing of near-live experiences (watch this space for more on the IP issues surrounding these sorts of products) but, thus far, there has not been a broad, coordinated VR offering for sport. Yet VR has been “the next big thing” in sport for some time now, with rightsholders increasingly taking advantage of new technologies to gain deeper and broader fan engagement. So has the next big thing finally arrived?

Much of the advertising Sky has pushed out thus far (see Sky Sports: Closer featuring brand ambassador David Beckham) focusses on Sky VR’s sports offering, as one might expect from the UK’s dominant subscription television sports brand. Yet even the latest launch by Sky has been framed as something of an experiment: an opportunity to engage with consumers and garner feedback. This is perhaps due to a number of remaining barriers to the expansion of VR into mainstream consumption. These (largely technological) barriers include internet speed and bandwidth constraints, the need for high-end headsets (though affordable versions such as Google cardboard are starting to appear), and the tendency for many to experience motion sickness during or after use.

From a commercial perspective, VR, along with related technologies such as augmented reality has the potential to alter the landscape of rightsholders’ commercial programmes. This is particularly so when one considers the potential for interaction with other new trends, wearable tech, connectivity, and data collection, enabling the creation and dissemination of unprecedented new forms of personalised digital content. All this calls for careful planning and packaging of rights, and consideration of where new technology may or may not sit within existing licences, particularly where exclusivity has been granted (indeed creative packaging and content creation could be one way in which rightsholders seek to mitigate the effects of a Digital Single Market on licensing models). Sport does now appear to be on the cusp of the new VR age, which represents an exciting new era for businesses and consumers alike.